It was amazing to hear Arsene Wenger switch from English Language to French and then German during the announcement of Arsenal's pre-season tour of Nigeria at the club's training ground in London last week before the match with Norwich.
It was the eve of his 900th match as the manager of Arsenal. Wenger is today the only manager that has presided over more matches at the club and has equally enjoyed the same amount of successes. Known for his ability to spot and develop players from around the world, Wenger, in this chat with Sunday Vanguard's Jimoh Babatunde, took time out to speak on Nigeria's football and her players. Excerpts:
Since the exit of Nwankwo Kanu from Arsenal, we have not had another Nigerian in the club. What's your impression of Nigerian players in the EPL?
For me, Kanu was an exceptional player. I saw Kanu in the Olympic games, he arrived there late. It was the preparations and he was the best player there when Nigeria won. I like Kanu because he was not only a great player, but he was very brave, and you could travel with him anywhere.
I think he was very great in representing Nigeria. He was a player that everybody loved here, as well as a man everybody loved here in England.
He never complained, you could kick him from everywhere, and he would never say a word, and he was very brave.
Then he created his heart foundation, and he does a good job with that. He is brave; when you have his knees, and you still play today, you must be brave.
Why are you not taking more Nigerians to the club?
(It is) for one single reason. It is that Nigeria is a massive country, but I believe that at the moment, they do not produce enough players anymore. It is 140 million people who love football. I met the Minister of Sports during the World Cup, and he talked about that situation. I think Nigeria has a job to do with the youths, to rebuild the system.
From the explanation I got, every province is different in terms of their system, but there is no global system to educate young players. It is vital to me that they educate the young people...They do not produce any good players, not enough anymore.
Is there a window of opportunity from this tour to create the platform for a relationship between Arsenal and Nigeria?
To create a relationship, I think is a good start, but our stay is too short to create something deeper and to create the communication such that Nigeria can be very important. We are not staying for such a long time that would allow for that.
How do you rate Mikel Obi as a midfielder in the EPL?
He plays for Chelsea, and if you play for Chelsea, you are a great player. But he had strange movement out of Nigeria because he was in Norway, and then he came back for Man United before Chelsea, so he did it in a complicated way.
But since he has shown great quality. He is as well a bit of the Kanu type, he is strong in character, he is a fighter, and he is doing extremely well, but maybe you have more of these players in Nigeria who do not get the chance to go out.
On the pre-season tour
We compromised, honestly on the sporting side because we had a rational methodical approach of our pre-season and we sacrificed some of that to go on tour...I realized when I was at the World Cup in South Africa, how popular a club like Arsenal is in Africa, especially in Nigeria. It was unbelievable. I was even frightened at some stage by how popular Arsenal is in Kenya as well. It is absolutely unbelievable, so every morning at breakfast, I had some meetings with people from all over Africa, and I realized how popular our club was over there.
I don't really know how you can transform that popularity into market...
On football development
I believe that there again, when you think about potentially developing players, it is first to have the coaches.
So chronologically, you have to educate people to coach, and then create schools where you can develop the players.
To make it as simple as possible, football is first a technical sport. It is not natural to use your feet to do something. Your feet are made to walk through the street, not necessarily to play football.
So you have first to transform someone into a football player, and that is between ages 5 and 12 years old. When you come at 14, it is too late. That is why you have to educate people to teach the basics of our sport between five and 12.
The kind of quality the coaches need is to know what you can do to develop people, that is the exercises that you can give, and as well to teach him not to make basic mistakes.
There are two things in our job that can be very dangerous. One, not to develop the potential of a person, the other is to disturb the potential of a person by making him do the wrong things. Sometimes, we can as well do that.
Your fans in Nigeria are disappointed that you have not won a silverware for five years or so now. As a manager, how do you feel about that?
You want to give me sleepless nights (laughter). But we have maintained our level at the top, but we couldn't finish...It s true that we missed winning, but we were at many times very close.
Let's not forget that in 2006, we were in the Champions League final and we have never gone out in the championship against small clubs. We went out most of the time against clubs who won it, like Barcelona, twice. That is what people forget.
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