Un­friendly Chelsea may soon lose Abramovich

The oli­garch is deeply hurt that the fans at Stam­ford Bridge have not warmed to him


AVRAM GRANT HAS taken the UK by storm. It would be hard to think of an­other high-profile char­ac­ter in Bri­tish his­tory who has gen­er­ated so much pride within the Jewish com­mu­nity while stir­ring up so much prej­u­dice out­side of it. Is­raelis ex­plain the lat­ter part of the equa­tion in one word or two, de­pend­ing on how you spell an­tisemitism, but the re­al­ity is more com­plex. To be sure, an­tisemitism and xeno­pho­bia play a part in the dis­dain for Grant, but the most deep-rooted rea­son for the an­tag­o­nism still di­rected to­wards the Is­raeli stems from the charge of crony­ism — the be­lief that Chelsea owner Ro­man Abramovich ap­pointed a close friend to be the Blues man­ager, even though he was hope­lessly un­der-qual­i­fied. Vis-à-vis Grant, this crony­ism is of­ten mis­tak­enly re­ferred to in the Bri­tish press as ne­po­tism, some­how re­in­forc­ing the myth that Jews are one big tightly knit fam­ily who only look af­ter them­selves.

Grant, by prov­ing the fans and me­dia wrong and lead­ing Chelsea to their first-ever Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal, as well as tak­ing Manch­ester United to the wire in the Pre­miere League, de­serves an apol­ogy, as does Abramovich. In all like­li­hood, Abramovich only be­friended Grant in 2005, when he first met him af­ter Is­rael’s 2-2 draw in a World Cup qual­i­fier against Ire­land, be­cause he saw a foot­ball coach with the tal­ent and strength of char­ac­ter who might one day lead Chelsea. The fact that he got along well with Grant and came from the same eth­nic back­ground was a sec­ondary bonus. Ul­ti­mately the dis­re­spect shown to Grant by fans and me­dia re­flects dis­re­spect for Abramovich’s judg­ment.

Re­mark­ably there is still wide­spread spec­u­la­tion that Grant will not re­main in charge of Chelsea next sea­son. Per­haps more re­mark­ably ev­ery­body is over­look­ing the more ob­vi­ous ques­tion. The ques­tion is not how much longer will Grant be at Stam­ford Bridge but how much longer Abramovich will re­main there.

Amid all the emo­tion of the oc­ca­sion at Stam­ford Bridge in the semi-fi­nal vic­tory over Liver­pool, the fact that Abramovich was not there — nor was he there for the vic­tory over Man Utd the pre­vi­ous Satur­day, or the first-leg of the Cham­pi­ons League semi-fi­nal at An­field — has been cast aside. The only rea­son he will prob­a­bly turn up for the fi­nal is be­cause it is in Rus­sia, where he has re­port­edly been de­tained on busi­ness and po­lit­i­cal mat­ters over the past month.

In com­ment­ing on the Rus­sian bil­lion­aire’s ab­sence, many news­pa­pers have sug­gested that Abramovich has fallen out of love with Chelsea. This is prob­a­bly true but not so much be­cause the wealthy oli­garch has tired of his toy, but more be­cause the Chelsea fans have con­sis­tently shown no love for Abramovich. The Rus­sian was re­port­edly deeply hurt when the fans took Mour­inho’s side in their rift, al­though he prob­a­bly un­der­stood the furore when he fired the Por­tuguese and took a gam­ble on Grant. But the con­tin­ued snip­ing at Grant even in the face of suc­cess sug­gests that the Chelsea fans will never warm to Abramovich. Much of the flak of prej­u­dice that Grant is tak­ing is re­ally meant for the Rus­sian owner.

Grant him­self could gain more pop­u­lar­ity by pol­ish­ing up his English and lightening up, both by smil­ing more and shed­ding a few pounds, al­though no­body could ac­cuse Abramovich of be­ing over­weight or grumpy.

To be sure, much of the prej­u­dice against Abramovich is be­cause he is Rus­sian rather than Jewish. Sim­i­larly some of the prej­u­dice against Grant prob­a­bly stems from na­tional jeal­ousy. In an era when the best man­ager that Eng­land can pro­duce is Steve McClaren, it must be galling to foot­ball fans that a coach from a re­mote out­post in the east­ern Mediter­ranean can show the home of foot­ball how it is done.

Yet the en­tire Chelsea saga has been a win-win sit­u­a­tion for all in­volved. Long-suf­fer­ing masochis­tic Chelsea fans like David Mel­lor have seen their team reach new heights even if they are un­grate­ful. Me­dia out­lets in­crease their reach on the back of the latest twists and turns of the Chelsea soap opera. Jose Mour­inho and even Clau­dio Ranieri be­fore him left Stam­ford Bridge as he­roes. They may never chant Grant’s name at Stam­ford Bridge, but with his track record this sea­son, other top clubs will be lin­ing up for him if and when he leaves.

And Abramovich? He has sunk hun­dreds of mil­lions of pounds into mak­ing Chelsea a global brand, but with a buoy­ant mar­ket in English foot­ball clubs he could surely re­coup all or most of his money if he sold out. My guess is that such a change of own­er­ship could come much sooner than ev­ery­one thinks.

Si­mon Griver cov­ers sport in Is­rael for the JC

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