The most famous man from Alsace in the English speaking World

I missed one of the few home games of le Racing since I’ve been back in Strasbourg but I’m pleased that they won 2-0 against Istres, a team who beat le Racing 6-1 at the beginning of the season, so progress and a move 05112009062away from the bottom three and relegation positions.  I hope to see Manchester City versus Burnley this afternoon, either on our satellite service or, as seems more likely, at a local Irish Bar.  Anyway, starting this post with the current football situation allows me to write about perhaps the best known Alsacian in the English speaking World, 05112009066Arsene Wenger.  The pictures are of ‘La Croix D’Or’ (Literally the Cross of Gold but a better English equivalent being the Golden Cross) in Duttlenheim a village a few miles South-West of Strasbourg on the road to Molsheim.  Arsene Wenger has talked about his time growing up in the village, most recently to the League Managers Association:

“There is no better psychological education than growing up in a pub… I learned about tactics and selection from the people talking about football in the pub – who plays on the left wing and who should be in the team.”

There is a wonderful extract, published five years ago in the Guardian, from the biography of Arsene Wenger by Jasper Rees, “Wenger: The making of a legend” talking about growing up in the village and playing football in Alsace to be found here:

On Fridays they serve rosbif

The young Arsene Wenger, a native of Alsace, was discovered by Max Hild one spring in the late 1960s. “He was 18,” says Hild, “and playing for his village. I was coach for the neighbouring team. Our espoirs were playing against Duttlenheim. It was a Wednesday evening. I can’t remember the score but we won.” The neighbouring team was AS Mutzig, a club with a reputation under Hild’s stewardship for playing the best amateur football in Alsace. The espoirs were the kids, the ones who still have hope.

It was so long ago that England were world champions. Arsenal, with a team containing Pat Rice, Bob Wilson and George Graham, would not win the double for another couple of seasons. Rice would later be Arsene Wenger’s assistant, Wilson his goalkeeping coach. Graham would be his predecessor, and his antithesis. “That was the first time I noticed him,” says Hild. “He was a midfielder. He played very well. He made such an impression that I got in touch with him and the next year he came to play for Mutzig in the third division.”

Hild is a small trim boyish man of 70 who meets me at the station in Strasbourg. It is a freezing Saturday morning in February and the city, the designated capital and centre of Europe, is quiet.

We get in Max Hild’s car and head for Duttlenheim. We turn off the motorway and are soon ambling along a main drag flanked by a mixture of solid modern houses and charming older structures. A settlement has been here since Roman times, and the name Duttlenheim has been around since at least 992. It feels as if some of its buildings have too. There are yards with neatly-piled firewood and museum-piece agricultural instruments. In one courtyard is an old wooden farm building, and a couple of tractors. Next door to it is a house – neat, modern and impeccably bourgeois – with a steep sloping roof and a large conifer on the front lawn. The plate on the letterbox says “A Wenger”. “A” in this instance stands for Alphonse.

Further down on the same block, just by the crossroads, is a restaurant. A bistro, they call it here. La Croix d’Or, it says above the door. Arsene Wenger’s father Alphonse ran an automobile spare-parts business in Strasbourg, but he and his wife Louise also owned and ran La Croix d’Or. It must once have been a residential house and at some point transmogrified into a watering-hole. On a blackboard outside the dishes of the day are listed. On Fridays they serve rosbif.

It was in this building that the future manager of Arsenal grew up, along with his older sister and brother. Within its four walls Wenger imbibed one of the central tenets of his footballing philosophy: that it is an offence to be drunk in charge of a football, or even to let alcohol touch your lips as a player. Perhaps imbibed is the wrong word.

“When he was little he was in La Croix d’Or all the time,” says Hild, who at the end of a long career as an amateur in the lower divisions had his first drink of beer at 36. “He saw a lot of people drinking, and the after-effects.”

In 1996, when Wenger was revealed as the new manager of Arsenal, he inherited a captain in the early stages of recovery from addiction to alcohol. Never in a rush to volunteer much about himself, it took Wenger two years to open up to Tony Adams and pool his memories of the alcohol abuse which, for better or worse, helped to plump the family coffers. “It’s further down the road that he actually had compassion for it,” recalls Adams. “Later on, down the line he shared things with me. He talked about being brought up in a Strasbourg pub and observing the way alcohol changed people, the effect the drink had on people.”

At Saturday lunchtime it is empty. The place looks pretty much as the Wengers left it more than 20 years ago. So says the current owner from under his thick grey moustache. Later in the afternoon it will fill with the smell of cigarettes and choucroute and beer and the chatter of Duttlenheimers whose families have known and intermarried with one another in this small community for centuries. You can’t imagine an environment more alien to the clean, antiseptic worlds which Wenger would later try to create at each of the clubs where he was made coach: smoke-free, alcohol-free, fat-free. And yet it was the siège of FC Duttlenheim – the HQ, the head office – where the talk was all of football, where the game leaked into the marrow of the young Wenger and stayed there.

On the bar is a copy of Alsace Foot, a weekly newspaper that gives some idea of the local passion for the game. There are 80,000 registered players in Alsace, out of a population of only 1.5 million.

“Alsace has always been football country,” says Hild. “It’s been the number-one sport since I was a boy.” The front page of Alsace Foot is usually devoted to Racing Club de Strasbourg, the big city outfit, but further in the font size gets smaller and the games more local. The results of the Ligue d’Alsace, in which FC Duttlenheim plays, are noted in the back half. Village football was truly a humble launchpad for the journey that followed – to running the prince’s team in Monaco, Toyota’s team in Japan, and on to the most traditional old club in the country that gave football to the world. No wonder, as the russet-cheeked barman says, while drying a glass, “Arsene really is a hero of Duttlenheim.”

Hild’s car turns right at the solitary traffic-light and treads gently through the village. We pass the ugly 19th-century bulk of St Louis (Catholic, of course), pass the mairie, and more barns and bungalows until we turn right down a track that leads to a small football pitch. It is hemmed in by the road on this side and the backs of houses on the other. Wedged in between the houses and the touchline is an open-sided stand of the kind you might erect to give horses shelter in a windy field. There is no seating, no rudimentary terrace. You could cram perhaps a hundred spectators in there, but you’d have to put the tall ones at the back.

It was on this ground that Wenger learned how to play football. There wasn’t a lot else to do in Duttlenheim in the 50s and 60s. But after school, at weekends, in the holidays, there was football, or watching football. The FA Cup final was the first foreign football he clapped eyes on, on the one television set in the village – in the school – in the late 50s. He would have seen Tottenham win one half of their double in 1961.

The children would count the cars which occasionally passed through the village. “One of you took the Citroens, the other took the Renaults,” remembers Claude Wenger, who may or may not be a relative. (“Perhaps our grandparents were cousins,” he says vaguely.) Everyone knew one another. “Back then no one went away on holiday. We were together the whole time.”

Because the Wengers ran a restaurant, they couldn’t always keep an eye on their children. It was a village where everyone took care of the young. Wenger later compared it to a kibbutz. But it was a Catholic kibbutz. The young Wenger put his faith at the service of the team. He’d be in church reciting from his prayer book when the team were playing on Sunday. He would pray for them to win.

When he wasn’t praying, he was rounding up boys to play in the game. In such a small village, it wasn’t easy getting 11 together in one age group. Wenger would spend the whole week assembling a team. Otherwise they’d have to play one short, or two. Perhaps it was in the early 60s that he began his love affair with pace and power, as you needed these to combat numerically superior teams. Arsenal often thrive when one of their number has been sent off; and struggle, by contrast, when they are playing against 10.

Not that, at the age of 12, he could muster much in the way of pace or power. Hild says the player he later spotted was “quite quick”. Claude Wenger says he was “quite slow”. Most people seem to agree with Claude Wenger. He was also short enough to have earned a humiliating nickname. When he arrived at Arsenal they called him Clouseau because there was something haphazard and clumsy about him (plus he spoke English with a hilarious French accent). Then they called him Windows because he wore glasses. But as a young teenager they called him petit: titch.

“Even at 12 he was a very calm, very lucid player,” says Jean-Noël Huck, who played for Mutzig. The same age as Wenger, he came up against him throughout their teens. “He was always the technician, the strategist of the team. He was already getting his ideas across, but calmly.” Wenger was going through a growth spurt when he got into the FC Duttlenheim first team at 16. When he shot up, he still didn’t use his head much, or at least not in the air. Training was once a week, on Wednesday evenings. There was no coach as such to instil tactics and skills, but someone who oversaw the session. On the pitch, even as the youngest player in the team, Wenger was in charge. “He was virtually, more or less, le patron,” says Claude Wenger. “Arsene wasn’t the captain and yet he was. It was, ‘You do this, you do that, you do this, you do that.’ He was the leader.”

Perhaps when I am working near Duttlenheim again I might take pictures of the Church, School and pitches mentioned in the piece above and post them here.

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2 Responses to “The most famous man from Alsace in the English speaking World”

  1. Ooooh baby, baby it’s a white World « The Flashing Blade Says:

    […] Duttlenheim, which as the place where one of the most famous Alsatians grew up was the subject of a previous post.  The second picture was taken this morning and the village is not visible, let alone the […]

  2. 2010 in review « The Flashing Blade Says:

    […] The most famous man from Alsace in the English speaking World November 2009 1 comment 4 […]

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