Arsene Wenger has never been big on milestones and birthdays. For more than half of his life, his "big day" has been every single day -- preparing his team on the training pitch for a match. On Tuesday, he turns 70, and for the second year in a row, he will have no training session to set up, no team talk to prepare and no interviews or news conferences to deliver. He will wake up with the whole day ahead of him, perhaps spending time with his ex-wife and companion, Annie, and their daughter, Lea, or close friends like David Dein. But he'll be comforted by the fact that there is indeed football on television that evening.
Wenger recently gave people insight regarding his "new" life, the one far removed from the daily grind of life in charge at Arsenal. "When I wake up, the first thing that comes to my head is, 'Is there an interesting game tonight on TV?' If that's the case, my day is OK," he told the 1,000 guests gathered at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London two weeks ago to see him receive the Legend of Football award, given by the Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity.
Tuesday is a Champions League matchday, so he will be happy. He hasn't missed many football games since leaving Arsenal in May 2018 after over 22 years in charge. Four weeks ago, as he prepared to board a Eurostar from London to Paris, he was eager to discuss Paris Saint-Germain's 3-0 win over Real Madrid the night before and highlight how impressed he had been by the PSG midfielders, Marco Verratti, Marquinhos and Idrissa Gueye. In the same conversation, he wondered what kind of team Unai Emery would field in Arsenal's upcoming Europa League fixture against Eintracht Frankfurt. Will he rotate? Will he play the kids? When you speak to him, Arsenal is never far from his thoughts. He still affectionately refers to the Gunners as "we" when talking about his former club.
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Despite offers from Premier League clubs and interest from Lyon and some national federations, Wenger has yet to return to the Emirates as either a guest or the opposition. He still follows Arsenal games, catches them on television as much as possible -- including Monday night's 1-0 defeat at Sheffield United -- but his return has not yet happened.
It's not that the club doesn't want him there or that he doesn't want to go. It's just too early, perhaps, even though there are no hard feelings toward the club that has defined his career in football. "I will always love Arsenal," he said at the awards dinner in his honour. Seemingly happy to be in the company of many of his former players and colleagues, he had nice words for many of them. Even though most of his trusted staff left when he did, Wenger is still in touch with current club employees.
In an interview with Bild last year, Wenger thought he would be back on a bench on Jan. 1, 2019. But as much as he misses the relationship with the players, the tactical aspects of the game and the thrill of being on the training pitch every day, he also doesn't want to rush anything. Perhaps the birthday present he's looking for is something more challenging that aligns to the values he holds so dear. In his closing remarks when he accepted his award, in his inimitable way he remarked: "You cannot always come first and you cannot always win, but you can never come second to your values."
While Wenger awaits a new bench and a revised daily routine, he will shortly be announced as FIFA's new technical director where his values, voice and opinions will be respected and heard. He has plenty of ideas on how to improve football. He always has. In the meantime, he'll continue to travel to Qatar, where he is a pundit for beIN Sport, and to France for consulting opportunities where he can put his knowledge and experience to great use. Earlier this year, he even dribbled past Zinedine Zidane, 24 years his junior, in a charity match.
As he turns 70, Wenger's contribution to the game shows no signs of slowing down. It's just taking different forms, like advising and mentoring. Most recently, he went to Istanbul and enjoyed dinner with Damien Comolli, his former collaborator and protege turned Fenerbahce sporting director. There are plenty of people who are enjoying his counsel and company now he is no longer tied to a fixture list and rigorous training schedules. He also has a chance to stop and reflect and is already working on his first official autobiography, "My Life in Red and White," which will be published next year in France and in the UK.
Since leaving Arsenal, Wenger looks refreshed. He's younger and fitter than ever -- nothing like a 70-year-old man who has weathered the storm of being a Premier League manager over two decades in which the game experienced profound, transformative change. He has plenty of energy and vigour, more ideas and ambition than ever. He is eager to come back to management.
Perhaps the birthday present he's been waiting for will come this year.