Chelsea’s fu­ture – like that of its ab­sent owner – re­mains in the bal­ance

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Michael Walker

En­coun­ters with Ro­man Abramovich are suf­fi­ciently rare for even the short­est or most nuts-and-bolts de­scrip­tions of them to take on weight.

Carlo Ancelotti’s brief rec­ol­lec­tions of his first two meet­ings with the Rus­sian oli­garch owner of Chelsea are in­ter­est­ing, there­fore, sim­ply for be­ing writ­ten down.

Ancelotti says in his book, The Beau­ti­ful Games of an Or­di­nary Ge­nius, that he first met Abramovich “around” May 2008 in Geneva, Switzer­land – in May 2008 Avram Grant’s short ten­ure at Stam­ford Bridge was com­ing to an end.

Peter Kenyon, Chelsea’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, was with Abramovich, as was a lawyer, an in­ter­preter and an­other un­named ex­ec­u­tive. Plus, as Ancelotti added with an ex­cla­ma­tion mark: “A lot of body­guards.”

Ancelotti’s next meet­ing with Abramovich was two weeks later. This time Ancelotti re­veals that it oc­curred in the Ho­tel Ge­orge V in Paris and that the same group of peo­ple met him.

He had been struck by Abramovich’s knowl­edge of the game – and his pas­sion for Chelsea – in the first meet­ing and the sec­ond con­firmed this. In the first, Ancelotti says that Abramovich’s re­quest/in­struc­tion was: “I want Chelsea’s style of play to be recog­nised around the world”.

In the sec­ond Abramovich com­plained that An­drei Shevchenko was “just not the real Sheva any­more”. And over­all: “Chelsea just seems to lack per­son­al­ity”.

Here was an in­ter­est­ing em­pha­sis on style.

The com­ments chime with a re­mark from an­other rare en­counter with the Rus­sian, this time via David Smith in the Ob­server in 2006. Granted a one-on-one sit-down with Abramovich – though no record­ing was al­lowed – Smith was told of the Chelsea owner’s au­then­tic love for his new club and the sport it­self.

“I am a fan of spe­cial na­ture,” Abramovich said. “I’m get­ting ex­cited be­fore ev­ery game. The tro­phy at the end is less im­por­tant that the process it­self.”

Imag­ine him ex­plain­ing that no­tion to José Mour­inho.

The idea that a man as pow­er­ful as Abramovich, com­ing from the of­ten vi­o­lent back­ground of wild east eco­nom­ics amid the rub­ble of the Soviet Union, would cher­ish style over sub­stance, process over de­liv­ery, seems dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend.

But, if we take him at his word, maybe he has longed for style and sub­stance in equal mea­sure.

Good times

“He knew the game in­side out,” says Ancelotti, whose opin­ion you would trust.

The thought arises then that just at a mo­ment when Chelsea are pro­duc­ing some glo­ri­ous, ef­fec­tive pas­sages of foot­ball un­der the lat­est man­ager Abramovich has hired, Mau­r­izio Sarri, the un­pleas­ant irony for the Rus­sian is that he is un­able to wit­ness this in the flesh, week in, week out.

Be­cause Abramovich is in a form of ex­ile from Stam­ford Bridge. We do not know when it will end or what the ef­fects upon Chelsea will be.

Sarri is the 13th per­ma­nent man­age­rial ap­point­ment since Abramovich flew in from Moscow to buy the club in 2003 – if Guus Hid­dink’s two spells are in­cluded.

There have been good times, suc­cess, sil­ver­ware. Chelsea have be­come recog­nised around the world.

But there is a dance to Sarri’s foot­ball over these past three months. The Ital­ian plas­tic-fag smoker with a love of jazz is get­ting a tune out of just about ev­ery­body in blue. And Abramovich is miss­ing it.

Chelsea, fifth last sea­son, are un­beaten in the league, have reached the last eight of the League Cup and are mo­tor­ing in Europe. In their last five matches, stretch­ing across those three com­pe­ti­tions, Chelsea have scored 15 goals.

At­trac­tion

Sarri, 59, pos­sess­ing none of the en­ti­tle­ment or ego of a ma­jor former player, rather the quiet nous of some­one who knows he has not seen and done it all, is part of the Chelsea at­trac­tion.

“My goal is to have fun as long as I am here,” he said at his un­veil­ing.

Chelsea’s play­ers and fans look like they’re hav­ing fun. And usu­ally the TV cam­eras would pan to Abramovich out­side his box to show him smil­ing along. No more.

The skip in Chelsea’s step is a con­trast with the sec­ond half of last sea­son when, as Conte be­gan to see exit signs and some play­ers con­sid­ered a World Cup, the taut team­work which had brought a ti­tle 12 months ear­lier gave way to de­feats at Wat­ford and New­cas­tle, home draws with West Ham and Hud­der­s­field.

Res­i­dence visa

Last May did bring the FA Cup fi­nal win over Manch­ester United, but it was the same month Abramovich re­ceived news from the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment that his UK res­i­dence visa was not be­ing re­newed.

It was one of those un­in­tended con­se­quences – like the fall of the USSR – in this in­stance from the Skri­pal case in Sal­is­bury.

There has long been a con­nec­tion made be­tween Abramovich and Vladimir Putin but Sal­is­bury hard­ened per­cep­tions – and of­fi­cial be­hav­iour. All gov­ern­ments like money and are per­suaded by it, but there are points when states feel vi­o­lated. Sal­is­bury was one, whereas deaths such as that of Abramovich’s former busi­ness part­ner, Boris Bere­zovsky, in Berk­shire in 2013, was not, in­ter­est­ingly.

In ex­ile

Bere­zovsky, a Putin op­po­nent, was in ex­ile in Bri­tain. It is a way of liv­ing/sur­viv­ing which Rus­sian oli­garchs have had to ac­cept in the near two decades of Putin. Abramovich, though, did not face this.

He was spin­ning plates suc­cess­fully un­til Sal­is­bury, un­til May. Abramovich missed the FA Cup fi­nal, then news came that the Stam­ford Bridge ex­pan­sion plan had been sus­pended and, after that, spec­u­la­tion of the sale of the club it­self.

A man who would watch Chelsea youth team games in France, who would go to bars in New York to see matches with fans, who res­cued Chelsea from the pos­si­bil­ity of miss­ing a £75m Eurobond re­pay­ment in July 2003, who won­dered why Sheva wasn’t playing well, must have been dis­il­lu­sioned.

At that stage, the whole Chel­ski makeover funded by one man looked frag­ile.

This is what Sarri was walk­ing into. On one side he had an owner whose ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion was in ques­tion. On the other were play­ers who had let a sea­son slip. Sarri did not know Eden Haz­ard’s next move.

There was the sort of un­cer­tainty that could have sunk Chelsea. There were enough ex­cuses for play­ers to floun­der.

Yet here they are, fly­ing. Sarri has held the cen­tre and while he is be­ing given praise, maybe he should be given more.

Where Abramovich is in all this, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, is un­known. He can see from afar that the lat­est edi­tion of the club he bought does not lack per­son­al­ity. Part of him must be en­joy­ing the process un­der Sarri, the style. But a part of him must be frus­trated he is not in Lon­don to touch it, the sub­stance.

And that means, for all Sarri’s ex­cel­lence to date, Chelsea’s fu­ture re­mains as cu­ri­ous as the man who owns it.

‘‘ Where Abramovich is in all this, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally, is un­known. He can see from afar that the lat­est edi­tion of the club he bought does not lack per­son­al­ity. Part of him must be en­joy­ing the process un­der Sarri, the style. But a part of him must be frus­trated he is not in Lon­don to touch it, the sub­stance.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BEN STANSALL/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Chelsea’s Rus­sian owner Ro­man Abramovich: “He knew the game in­side out,” says the club’s former man­ager Carlo Ancelotti.

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