The Roman Empire and the writing on the wall
I have been a fan of Chelsea Football Club since January 2003. Of that, I am pretty sure. It all started when I saw a flying Eidur Gudjohnsen thunder a bicycle-kick into the back of the net from a Frank Lampard cross. The match ended with Chelsea beating Leeds United 3-2. For an impressionable school boy, barely into his teens but secretly envious of many of his classmates having their loyalties firmly in place already with respect to club football, I needed a compelling reason to follow (or at least pretend to follow) a club religiously. On that cold January evening (don’t remember the date), Gudjohnsen provided me just that. He would later rate the goal as the best of his life.
During that period, Chelsea had been going through a period of transition under Claudio Ranieri that saw the shrewd Italian sell the fan favourite Dennis Wise and bring in youngsters like Frank Lampard, Emanuel Petit and William Gallas, among others, in a bid to reduce the average age of the squad. The Chelsea of those days was a more-than-decent club which just couldn’t find a way to come out of the shadows of their flashy next-door neighbors, Arsenal. The Gunners had adopted a buccaneering style of football under Arsene Wenger for more than a decade, a style that was new to the safety-first approach that characterised the ‘English Game’ and which had endeared them to fans all over the world. I remember Thierry Henry being talked about so much in those days that it had begun to sound a bit stale. As for Chelsea, we had a new owner in Roman Abramovich later that year. All we knew of this man was, firstly and most importantly, he was a very wealthy man and secondly, he had started off as a smuggler on his way to the top. As the later years would reveal, this was not an incident concerning merely the fortunes of an English club in isolation; the change of guard at Stamford bridge would prove to be the harbinger of an era of insane splurging in club football backed by super-rich owners who had more than a few questions raised about the sources of their wealth.
The Chelsea faithful, however, couldn’t be happier and by implication, care less about the tag of a ‘bunch of football mercenaries’ that would come back to hit him in the face time and again in the years to come. Those were times rife with speculation and most importantly, hope. If there’s one emotion that’s stronger than the clannishness of club loyalty, it’s the tag of being second-rate contenders season-after-season and being bullied in derby matches only to have your next-door-neighbors rub all of it and then some more into your face. Even though a Blues fan took great pride in an upper-mid table team that played a brand of football that was fluid by English standards, there was always the lingering heartache of not having featured in the title race for a good 50 years. Now, with the advent of a multi-billionaire, there was a real possibility of a squad overhaul and high-profile players/managers being attracted to the conveniently obscure place that was the Stamford Bridge of early 2000s and before. Ken Bates had been the owner of the club for more than two decades of topsy-turvy fortunes that saw us fight relegation battles for the greater part. In contrast to the elderly English-gentlemanlike demeanour of Bates – who would come to the club’s matches wearing an invisible robe of nonchalance that could have easily been construed as indifference – the histrionics of the new owner in the owners’ stands became as much a talk of the town as the big money he brought to the club.
Roman Abramovich had lost both his parents before he was four and was raised by his extended Jewish family. Growing up, he worked as a street-trader and later started to make money from the gambling business. He hadn’t blinked when misfortune stared menacingly into his eyes and his whole demeanor would lead you to believe that he saw the world as a flyweight boxer who had landed his best punch but couldn’t shake the opponent off his feet. Being an also-ran would never be enough for him afterwards. Buying Chelsea, therefore, was not an attempt to have a claim on the proceeds from the popularity of English Premier League, it appeared. Behind the media-shy and awkward facade was a man of steely resolve who was deeply passionate about the game (sometimes to the extent of being irrational, as the later years would reveal).
In the first full season under Abramovich, Chelsea finished second in the Premier League behind Arsenal and reached the semi-final stage of Champions League. Porto, under an upcoming and bright manager in Jose Mourinho, won the title in a final that was labelled as the clash of the underdogs. The next season, as if it were the most inevitable thing in the world, Mourinho was brought to Stamford Bridge, lured by what he famously called the “strong incentives” offered by the London club. Amidst all this, the news of Ranieri’s sacking was lost in the din that preceded the arrival of “The Special One”, as he famously called himself in one of his early interviews after arriving in England.
The July of this year will mark a decade of Chelsea under Abramovich and one of the major planks of arguments employed to hit on the knuckles of Chelsea fans and diffuse debates in these years has been to brand us ‘a bunch of glory-hunters’ . I would like to believe that the thing that has endeared us to fans all over the world, among other things, has been the strength (read quirkiness) of the personalities at the club. Jose Mourinho definitely had a strong personality, someone who liked to wear his confidence on his sleeve. The kind of confidence that would make your teeth grate and fists clench if you happened to not be on his side. Mourinho was an instant hit with the local media for the cockiness of his remarks and the witty one-liners delivered with a straight face. For the English Media, not used to ‘the Mourinho ways’ just yet, he was looked at as someone who had turned up for a corporate party wearing a Spiderman costume and a cowboy hat. For a young manager who was a relatively unknown commodity before his European triumph with Porto, Mourinho didn’t show even a trace of self-doubt. In competitive sports, that can be a priceless asset if present in right proportions with shrewdness and understanding of the game, as Jose Mourinho has proved over the years.
Apart from his strategic genius, Mourinho had the knack of finding the right players to ‘get the job done’ and it appeared as if he let some of his self-belief seep through into the players as they began punching above their weight very soon. Some of his inventions about positioning and formation strategies like ‘The Makelele role’ and ‘The Didier Drogba position’ were revolutionary. It wasn’t exactly an aesthetic delight, but he was soon regarded as one of the canniest strategists around. Chelsea won the title with a record points tally and the next year’s title too but Champions League success remained an elusive dream. Abramovich’s obsession with Champions League success and continued interference in the workings of the team meant that Mourinho had to leave the club in September 2007 to be replaced by Avram Grant.
Under Grant, Chelsea defeated Liverpool to play their first Champions League final against Manchester United in Moscow in what was the first all-English Champions League final in the history of the competition. The vivid details of that match are etched in every Chelsea fan’s for the sheer misfortune of having lost it in the cruelest of ways. They lost the penalty shoot-out through sudden death and what followed was a collective mourning for the Blues’ fans.
The coming years saw something of a pantomime show of sackings as Luiz Felipe Scholari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas Boas were brought to Stamford Bridge and quickly fired after the quest for European triumph didn’t come to an end. It was farcical and it had started to become embarrassing for the supporters to explain the rationale behind it all, quite simply because there wasn’t any. We had done a deal with the devil and didn’t complain about the obvious perks it brought us. It was time now to see the ugly side of a megalomaniac who was too passionate about the game for anybody’s good. The Chelsea fans saw Mourinho win the Champions league with Inter Milan and later take Real Madrid to the La Liga title, all the while reminiscing of the days when the team had become a feared force in the world of football and Stamford Bridge had become something of a fortress under the Portuguese maverick. Now, the signings weren’t a part of the manager’s long-term strategies but a fruit of the owner’s secret admiration of players elsewhere.
Amidst all the chaos, Roberto Di Matteo was appointed the interim manager after the sacking of AVB and he went on to win the Champions league for the team in a season that was one of the worst of the decade otherwise. It was time to finally call ourselves the European Champions, a realization that brought with it the sudden euphoria that seemed all too surreal in the beginning. It had come ‘against the run of play’ and in a season in which the team had finished sixth in the Premier League. In the ties against Barcelona and in the final against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, Chelsea had to resort to ‘parking the bus’ because they couldn’t match the opposition in ball-play in the centre of the pitch, it was reasoned. The next season, they went out in the group stage in spite of having made some really expensive signings. It was the first time when the Champions of Europe hadn’t made it to the knock-out rounds. Chelsea had become a laughing stock again and our claims of being the current European Champions have become ever so muffled.
To add insult to injury, Roberto Di Matteo was sacked and replaced by the former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez. The Chelsea fans had loved to hate Benitez with all our heart during his time at Anfield after he had questioned our allegiance to the club. Di Matteo was a club legend, as a player and as the manager who had won the Champions league only a few months back. The Chelsea fan was not so much angered as he was pained. It was betrayal from the man who owned the club and in whose name we had fondly called ourselves the “Roman Empire”. The 16th minute applause that became something of a ritual after Di Matteo’s departure did not soothe the pain, only made it fresher with every home game.Published 28 Feb 2013, 18:37 IST