Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Zen and the art of Premier League dominance: Buddhist philosophy links Manchester United, Arsenal and Japan

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

The recent news that Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United (between 1986 and 2013), was briefly in intensive care turned the thoughts of soccer fans everywhere to an appreciation of the Scot’s monumental achievements — both his contribution to the worldwide popularity of the English Premier League and a 20-year golden age for Manchester United.

At almost the same moment, earlier this month Ferguson’s great rival, Arsene Wenger, manager of London club Arsenal, retired after 22 years. Between them, Wenger and Ferguson comprised the central dynamic at the heart of the modernization of English football. Yet the story has surprising connections to both Japan and that most eclectic form of Japanese thought, Zen.

The link between Wenger and Japan is relatively well known. Before assuming his role at Arsenal in 1996, Wenger spent 18 months as manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight, where he was said to have taken a keen interest in Zen Buddhist thought and was reputed to have “found” himself, becoming calmer and more considered as a manager. The Zen attributes of mental strength, calmness under pressure and dedicated training were all aspects of the football “philosophy” that he brought with him to England and which he attempted to inculcate in his Arsenal teams, climaxing in the famous “Invincibles” team of the 2003-04 season, who managed to not lose a single league match.

In contrast to Wenger’s Zen-like concentration on diet, training and mental strength, Ferguson might at first appear relatively old-school. But Ferguson was in his way every bit as Zen-like as Wenger; it’s just that he applied a different aspect of Zen-like thought to football. In fact, it’s noticeable that after Ferguson retired in 2013, United struggled to recapture the collective mental dominance they once enjoyed, and as early as January 2015, Ferguson’s successor, Louis Van Gaal, was reported in the British press to have turned to a Thai Zen master — who lived in Stockport — to try and instill in them a lost sense of belief.

The Zen of Sir Alex

The main themes of Ferguson’s transformation of Manchester United seem cast in stone. He set about, after some shaky first years, banishing the drinking culture dominant amongst United players of the late 1980s and instilling instead a new diligent professionalism. He nurtured a new generation of “kids” — including David Beckham, the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt — who famously won the treble of League, FA Cup and Champions League in 1999; and he was a brilliant tactician and psychologist who made inspired transfers like maverick Frenchman Eric Cantona, who acted as a mentor to the youngsters in the squad.

I was one of a generation, raised in Manchester in the 1980s, with only a very mild interest in soccer. I vaguely supported Manchester United but knew none of their glory days in the late 1960s, and experienced only the two decades of disappointment that followed.

But Ferguson suddenly made football interesting — the pace at which he made his young players attack, the constant demand for them to play adventurous, creative football began to recast it in a new light. You could watch his teams and suddenly see artistry in it, flashes of something beautiful emerge before your eyes.

One of the most profound concepts of Zen is that art is not something you physically create in an exterior sense. Rather it is something that already pre-exists in your depth consciousness — otherwise how could you recognize it as beautiful? The sculptor is not someone who fashions a creation out of wood or stone. Rather, the sculpture already exists within the wood or stone and the artist is merely removing the darkness, the material, that cloaks it.

If you think about it, the idea that you already contain artistic genius within you is an enormously empowering concept. If you are striving externally to reach something, you may or may not attain your goal, but if you consider that what you are striving for is already contained within you, then your sense of self-belief is likely to be considerably boosted.

We hear a lot today about “sports psychology” and how important it is to put athletes in the right “mental space.” A famous example of this was displayed by another master tactician and psychologist, Sir Clive Woodward, while guiding England to their Rugby World Cup triumph in 2003. After his team put in a dire first-half performance against Samoa, Woodward got them to change their entire kit at half-time, as was his wont, so they would come back out onto the pitch as new players starting again. It worked and England won 35-22.

There was a similar, but more profound and Zen-like, masterstroke of psychology before United played their Champions League final in 1999. United had endured a consistently frustrating run in that competition in the 1990s and had not reached a final in 30 years. They were up that year against a powerhouse Bayern Munich side with greater pedigree in the competition.

What Ferguson did at this juncture was his greatest ruse in all his years in management: He got the team to train immediately before the final in exactly the same kit as the United players had worn when they had won the European Cup in 1968. It might have looked like a stunt for the cameras, but it was actually something much deeper. He was telling the players: You already contain this success deep inside you; now you have to reveal it.

The koan of King Eric

A Zen-like aspect had already settled over United from the mid-1990s onwards. In 1995 the team’s talisman, Cantona, faced a news conference after notoriously jumping into the stands and lunging with a kung-fu kick at an abusive supporter. Cantona then made a pronouncement worthy of a Zen grand master: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” He said this and nothing else.

Like Zen acolytes scratching their heads after hearing one of the koan riddles from a head priest at Eiheiji temple mocking everyday rationality, the press corps duly departed vaguely aware they had heard something profound, but not exactly sure what.

Yet for all the Zen-like aura, when it came to the 1999 Champions League final itself, the match was incredibly frustrating. Bayern scored a goal in the sixth minute and United were not at their creative best. Watching it, you couldn’t help but think, “Perhaps dreams don’t come true after all.” Perhaps after all your effort and pains, your constant determination, the sculpture remains trapped, entombed.

But then we entered the dream-like minutes of extra time. Ferguson had made two second-half substitutions and a British commentator, Clive Tyldesly, called it perfectly, “Can Manchester United score? They always score.” And they did score. Twice.

I had flown in from Japan to the U.K. that day and was still a little jet-lagged, but I remember feeling profoundly emotional watching the end of that match. Ferguson had already revealed the artistry of football, but now it seemed as if you were touching upon a core drama of life itself, an extraordinary ability to stumble Howard Carter-like after years of travail into a fabulous inner sanctum of success.

“Fergie time” — those sometimes slightly dubious minutes of extra time added to matches when United extraordinarily battled and often succeeded in coming back and stealing a win — became a feature of countless subsequent Premier League matches. What seemed to be on display was Ferguson’s indomitable spirit and determination to battle to the last second, passed on to his players. That’s true enough, but a very Western exteriorized manner of seeing things.

For the connoisseur of Zen and Ferguson’s artistic genius, what we were actually beholding was a determination to lift the darkness off the buried belief in success that lurked in the hearts of all his players and fans.

As the reward for their Champions League victory that year, United came to Japan to play the champions of South America, Palmeiras, whom they beat 1-0 to win the Intercontinental Cup.

Ferguson was making a pilgrimage to the land that had so inspired his great rival Wenger. Superficially of profoundly different temperaments, Ferguson and Wenger inhabited more precisely different aspects of Zen-like insight applied to the sport. Wenger was fully cognizant of his borrowings from Zen, but Ferguson may never have suspected just how much the most profound philosophy of the land he was visiting was perfectly in tune with his celebrated management style.

If that other stalwart of the English Premier League, Liverpool, is to prevail against Real Madrid in the Champions League final this weekend, they too might find that discovering their collective inner Zen is key.

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