May 20, 2012
Cheers for Chelsea
By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency
There may have been many greater performances on a soccer field, much deeper explorations of the technique and the beauty of the world’s game but in Munich last night what we had was something that from time to time transcends the boundaries of any sport.
It was the sight of a champion making the statement of his life — not just about an astonishing climax to a long and distinguished career at the age of 34 but also about the pain and the disappointments of an eight-year campaign that cost seven team coaches, including some of the biggest names in the game, their jobs and a Russian oligarch upwards of $2 billion.
Didier Drogba swept Chelsea to victory in the European Champions League — the biggest prize in world club soccer — with a late equalizer — a stupendous rocket of a header from a corner — and then applied the final sword stroke in the shootout 4-3 margin over the home team, and the hot favourites, Bayern Munich.
Drogba, like some old matador, then stepped forward and dedicated the trophy to all the coaches and the players who had fallen while trying to win Roman Abramovich a title he was said to crave more than any of the art treasures and super-yachts he has acquired with the Russian mineral wealth which had made him — at the last time of accounting — the 35th richest man in the world.
Said the big man from the Ivory Coast, “This is for all the managers and the players who have been on this journey — I have always believed in destiny and this year the feeling has been strong.”
Drogba, who as a free agent is now likely to augment his own considerable wealth, either with a new Chelsea contract or with one of the offers now guaranteed after his tour-de-force of the last few months, has another distinction which is not recognized by the likes of Forbes Magazine. He was recently ranked by Time as one of the world’s 100 most influential figures following his efforts for peace in his war-torn homeland.
Not everyone admires some of the more theatrical aspects of his nature on the playing field — but then no-one doubts that his brilliance has been the prime factor in one of the most astonishing stories soccer has ever known.
A few months ago Chelsea were the broken plutocrats of English football. Abramovich had fired the respected Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti and installed 34-year-old wunderkind Andre Villas-Boas, who despite never having played the game professionally had produced a string of remarkable results with his home town team Porto. Villas-Boas was invited to launch a new Chelsea project, which essentially involved clearing out veterans like Drogba, Frank Lampard and John Terry.
The trouble was the young coach provoked something resembling instant chaos — and the result brought a shattering decline on the field. When Villas-Boas was fired earlier this year, Chelsea were slipping down the Premier League and out of contention for Champions League action next season — and trailing Napoli 3-1 in this year’s competition after the first leg of the round of 16.
The interim coach Roberto di Matteo, a former Chelsea player who scored one the quickest goals in the history of FA Cup finals, was invited to fight for a little respectability before handing over at the season’s end to another heavyweight contender for glory on the Chelsea touchline.
Last night Di Matteo, who also won the FA Cup earlier this month, was asked about his reaction to reports that Abramovich was about to appoint former England coach Fabio Capello in his place. He said, “What happens in the future is out of my hands. All I want to do now is celebrate the moment with some great players.”
It was a diplomatic response as much of the rest of football, including Bayern’s experienced coach and former Champions League winner Jupp Heynckes, believed that Abramovich, notorious for his erratic treatment of coaches, was obliged to give an extended contract to the man who had delivered finally the great prize.
The more you looked at Di Matteo’s achievement, the more inconceivable it seemed that the oligarch might continue to look elsewhere.
With magnificent help from most notably Drogba, Di Matteo turned around the Napoli deficit, fashioned quarter final victory over Benifica, created a defensive epic against everyone’s idea of the best team in the world, Barcelona, before holding his nerve in Munich last night.
Some soccer experts will tell you that no one ever rode his luck more spectacularly than Roberto di Matteo.
But then it is also true that few embattled coaches ever drew more heart and guts and the last of their ambition from a group of old pros.
Drogba crossed himself and re-asserted his belief in a sacred destiny. Di Matteo pared down the emotion and said simply that he had merely trusted his instincts. It was hard not to believe that they represented unsurpassable value even for one of the richest men in the world.
- James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.