Thank heavens for Andrew Flintoff. Quite apart from decisively contributing to the humbling of one of the most obnoxious collection of talent ever to assemble in a sporting arena – verily, so obnoxious were they that this committed little Irelander was wholeheartedly shouting for perfidious Albion – but his swashbuckling efforts and his chortlesome consumption of copious amounts of booze showed us all just how lazy, boring and grossly overpaid footballers are and how utterly boooooring the winter game really is. We couldn’t have done it without you, Freddie.
Except plenty of us knew football was boring to begin with. Someone who read a book where nothing happened for 95% of the time would either a) give it the Booker Prize, or b) demand their money back. If you want to appreciate a game of sport for its aesthetics, there have always been pursuits more elegant, more dramatic, more brutal, more exciting than football. Yet football has thrived because it is the only sport with a truly global reach, creating an at-times incomprehensible web of tribal loyalties that refresh the parts of the soul that other sports cannot reach. Not only would Northern Ireland (or their equivalent) be incinerated every time they met England in cricket, they’d never get the chance to play them in the first place. The cricket crowd may be crowing as the Greatest Test Series Ever remains in the memory, but the fiasco recently played out between Australia and the World XI should cause football fans to smirk at the cricket fans presumption. No football fan would ever assume that just because Liverpool and Milan played the Greatest Match Ever that it makes Everton v Wigan would look more lustrous by association.
Aha, claims the new-found lover of all things leather-against-willow, there is a new fly in the football ointment, and that is the Jeff Goldblum-like creation that is Chelsea. Derek Dohren has already made a spirited case for the prosecution for their cancerous effect on football and, more pertinently to Derek’s thesis, to themselves. But as someone who does not love football because he’s too busy loving Liverpool, it seems to me that a lot of the things Chelsea are accused of have been a part of football since the year dot, and will continue to be until the glaciers return. To whit, let’s look at some of the atrocities Chelsea are accused of visiting on humanity and give the contrarian point of view.
Abramovich’s money is dodgier than a Lada.
Few would say with a straight face that the manner by which Roman Abramovich came upon his cash was kosher. He was part of what is tactfully called an oligarchy which bought up the assets that were previously owned by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the equivalent of a bag of magic beans. Less tactfully, an article in Time (all right, get all the jeering out of your system) once memorably described Russia post-Gorbachev as a ‘mobocracy’, plundered by a series of latter-day Al Capones who then installed their men in power to retrospectively legalise their grubby capital grab. Abramovich is most certainly part of that crew.
To which I say: so what? On a philosophical level, most elites are created out of the turmoil of revolution and in a few decades no one bats an eyelid. The Duke of Westminster is currently being feted for pouring millions into the regeneration of Liverpool city centre, yet if you were to ask him to demonstrate how he came by the ownership of the vast swathes of land that is the source of his wealth, he’d struggle to produce a receipt. Abramovich will be no different before long. On a more practical level, who among us would not take his cash? There were many expressions of concern when Taksin Shinawatra was sniffing around Anfield at his shady dealings in Thailand. But how many of you would have taken a principled stand and refused to follow Liverpool FC due to the iffy human rights record of the owner of the club? Two of you? That many? Banging in a few goals was enough for John Barnes to banish the racist core at the heart of the Kop forever. The less savoury side of such utilitarianism is that it would only take a few megastar signings for people to ignore Shinawatra’s foibles, and the same is true of Abramovich.
Their money is distorting football in a new and more menacing way.
Derek Dohren makes the case that Chelsea’s bottomless pit of money is more bottomless than previous owners of bottomless pits of money. I’m not so sure. Chelsea have had to travel a lot shorter a distance to the top than the previous team with a bottomless pit of money, Blackburn Rovers. When Jack Walker decided to start throwing money at his beloved club, they were languishing in the old First Division. And make no mistake, at the time the money they spent was thought of as anathema to the competitive spirit, a cancer in the game etc. The figures seem trifling now, but when Blackburn stumped up £5 million for Chris Sutton, the magazine 90 Minutes led with headline screaming “How MUCH?!?” We’ve had moneybags owners before – the Bank of England club, the Chequebook Champions – and we’ll have more in the future, yet football rumbled/rumbles inexorably forward. Okay, Chelsea are the most extreme example yet, but they’re the logical consequence of a system that refuses to treat each club as a protected franchise (Milton Keynes Dons excepted). Theoretically Roman Abramovich could have invested in Marine, or more implausibly, Everton, and nursed them to the top of the football tree. The only way to protect against such a scenario is to introduce American-style franchises, where a one-horse town like Green Bay can be a force in the NFL. But no one can ever be relegated or promoted. That’s the choice we have to make, and I think I know which most people would choose.
Perhaps they are. It doesn’t matter. Winning, to quote a legendary coach of the aforementioned Green Bay Packers, isn’t everything – it’s the only thing. That’s not strictly true, but given the choice between winning ugly and losing pretty, there’s only one game in town as far as the fans are concerned, fans being the only group that a club’s staff owe anything to. When Martin Jol said that there was an obligation on Chelsea to be stirring and dynamic, what he meant was Chelsea should invest more effort in good football which would leave less energy to spend on, well, winning. Spurs fans in particular routinely talk up their love of ‘good football’, which is code for saying “we’re crap but at least we play ‘good football’”. Which in turn is code for “we’re crap.” Somehow I doubt Chelsea fans look enviously at all those teams that
They’re going to dominate football for decades.
Perhaps the greatest source of the chill passing through football today is the idea that the league title is taking up permanent residence for Stamford Bridge. This seems reasonable given their current rate of progress. But nothing lasts forever. Mourinho is a big part of Chelsea’s success. Perhaps he will get bored and move on to a new challenge. A time will certainly come when his methods become stale. Alex Ferguson is still the same man who swept the boards for Man United in the 1990’s, but his opponents are not the same. It must have galled him – oh, how it galled him! – to see Rafael Benitez waltz away with the European Cup in his first season. His tactical lesson for the young Spanish Turk was probably greeted by Rafa as if it were scrawled on papyrus, so antiquated must Ferguson’s philosophy seem to the modern generation of manager. Even the greatest teams can be upset by the departure of a couple of key players. Lost amidst the tumult of the Kop’s hammering of Chelsea in last season’s European Cup semi-final was Mourinho’s lame excuse that they were missing Arjen Robben and Damien Duff. So Chelsea were short two players and suddenly they were so toothless that they had to put Robert Huth up front. It was an astonishing admission for Mourinho, one that might have gotten more attention had it not been for his even more lame attempt to blame it all on the dodgy Garcia goal – which he, alone among the entire planet, knew was definitely not over the line. Perhaps Chelsea are a Petr Cech or a Claude Makalele injury away from finding the whole balance of their team knocked askew. You could argue that Chelsea will lob out another £30 million on a replacement, but what player worth that much who has not had a lobotomy would sign on the basis of being a short-term replacement, or what manner of effect on player morale would it be to have two world-class players like that squabbling over the one slot? There are so many ways for the Chelsea machine to go haywire that it is surely impossible that it won’t go wrong at some point in the future.
When will that point come? Impossible to say, and there are going to be a few more reversals akin to that walloping we recently received at Anfield to deal with. But the measure of any person and / or institution is not how it handles success but in how it handles failure. Milan took their soul-destroying defeat in Istanbul with a tremendous amount of grace – bolstered by the knowledge of a century of experience that while the pain will linger and never truly go away, it does ease over time. Remember when Arsenal plundered the league from under noses? It still causes a pang if you think about it too hard, but flick all mental processes into Istanbul mode and the endorphins wash away all the pain. It would be good as Liverpool fans if we could show the same poise living in Chelsea’s shadow as we expected others to show to us when we were the undisputed masters of football.