Arsene Wenger's reunion with Monaco dredges up unpleasant memories
The problem, sometimes, when you revisit the past is that you can sometimes uncover moments you'd rather forget.
Arsene Wenger spent seven years at Monaco between 1987 and 1994. He was just 37 years old when he joined the Principality. He was young and cool, and with his blond hair and glasses, quite handsome too. He was avant-garde, smoking on the bench to ease the tension during games. As soon as the draw was made and Wenger was to return to the Stade Louis II, footage of him with his cigarette on the bench resurfaced.
Almost 30 years later, Wenger has not changed much. He is still tall and slim, his blond hair is now mostly white and he remains cool and innovative -- although in a different way than back then. He no longer smokes on the bench, though.
As his Arsenal host his former club on Wednesday in the Champions League round of 16 first leg, memories will likely come flooding back to Wenger. Returning to Monaco on March 17 for the first time with another team will be more special for him, but Wednesday should be quite emotional for the 65-year-old. It is rare in football that two clubs with the same longest-serving manager in their history face one another. No one spent more time on the Riviera or in Islington than Wenger.
Apart from the success, there are plenty of similarities between his spell at Monaco and Arsenal. For both clubs, Wenger was the gamble that paid off. Before joining Monaco, he spent three years at Nancy in Ligue 1. They finished 12th, 18th and 19th, relegated in Wenger's final season there. Still, Monaco believed in his new approach, his professionalism and his ideas, like his 4-4-2 diamond midfield that worked wonders in his first season at the Stade Louis II. That side was great to watch and won the league with ease in 1988.
Like at Arsenal, where he ushered in new nutritional guidelines, Wenger was very innovative at the Principality too. He was one of the first managers to use video for preparation, to do specific tactical sessions and to make players eat together. Glenn Hoddle joined Monaco on a free transfer from Tottenham in 1987 and often recalls how Wenger made him do warm-downs or have massages -- neither of which he had never heard of before -- and tried to prevent him from having a beer or two after games.
"He had a natural authority," said Emmanuel Petit, who would eventually follow Wenger from Monaco to Arsenal. "We respected him because he was so knowledgeable about the game, about the tactics, about the preparation. Everything he was doing there was impressive. He was taking everything to another level compared to what we did before him."
At Monaco, Wenger made players (like Youri Djorkaeff and George Weah) and brought some though (like Petit, Lilian Thuram and Thierry Henry), just as he does to this day at Arsenal.
As much as Wenger gave to Monaco and Monaco to Wenger, his experience will always leave him with a sour taste because of the war with Marseille. After the 1988 title, his Monaco never finished higher than second, while l'OM won four straight titles. The hatred between Wenger and Marseille owner Bernard Tapie reached heights that make his rivalries with Sir Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho look civilised.
"Look back now and you can't help but think we might have claimed at least two more league titles at Marseille's expense," Claude Puel, who spent seven years with Wenger at Monaco and now manages Nice, told the Guardian last week. "He believes that too. It scarred Arsene. It scarred all of us. You have your own pure view of football, of what it means and how you fight for your teammates and defend your colours. History has shown things were different then."
Tapie and Marseille were convicted of bribing Valenciennes players in May 1993, but Jean-Jacques Eydelie, the club's former midfielder and Tapie's middleman for the bribery, revealed in his autobiography that the club president tried to influence many other games, too.
Wenger spoke about the incident just once, in 2006.
"At that time, corruption and doping were big things and there was nothing worse than knowing the cards were stacked against us from the beginning," he said. He and others at Monaco have long suspected Marseille "bought" some of the Principality's players to underperform throughout the season. Such claims have never been proved, but Wenger has kept a lot of resentment over what happened in those years.
But the past is the past. Monaco were the making of Wenger. It was a rehearsal, in many ways, for what he would do on a larger scale at Arsenal a few years later.
Despite winning the league in 1988, the French Cup in 1991, the Cup Winners' Cup in 1992 and reaching the 1994 Champions League semifinals, Wenger was sacked from Monaco eight games and five defeats into the 1994-95 season. Just weeks earlier, Monaco chairman Jean-Louis Campora refused to let his manager leave for Bayern Munich.
Arsenal fans can thank Campora. Had Wenger set off for Bavaria, the Frenchman probably would have never set foot in the home dressing room at Highbury.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.