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.