Does Chelsea fear losing its trophies more than being caught for match-fixing?
Professional football is fast turning into a theatre, with protagonists, antagonists and anti-heroes all vying to be at the forefront of this multibillion dollar industry. Would Zidane have retired a tragic hero had he been on the pitch to slot the winning penalty for France? Would Maradona be adored if he had not followed up his “Hand of God” with the greatest goal in history only minutes later?
Arguably no club epitomises this quite like Chelsea. A club which for decades was another middling English club based in London until the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich turned up in 2003. Chelsea is now fast becoming members of the elite, bankrolled to the tune of a billion pounds. The man who defined this rise and made it all possible was not a player, not even Abramovich himself but Jose Mourinho. Arguably the most charismatic, Machiavellian and successful manager the game has ever seen.
Chelsea now has a new Italian manager, Antonio Conte. Conte is currently the manager of the Italian national team and the man that returned Juventus to its lofty perch at the top of Italian football after their decline, ironically in the Italian match-fixing of the mid-noughties. Today, as Conte readies himself to assume his first job outside of Italy, he is fighting a match-fixing case in criminal courts in Italy. He has already paid a fine and served a four month suspension handed to him by the Italian FA so it is likely that he would be convicted again. This begs the question though, why would a club as big as Chelsea take on a manager that has not only been accused, but found guilty in the past for failing to report match-fixing?
Success has always made forgiveness in football incredibly easy and at the modern Chelsea this ideal is hugely prevalent; although never before has an accused been met with this much approval. Adrian Mutu for example, was sacked by the club after he tested positive for cocaine in 2005 with Chelsea at the peak of its powers. The Chelsea of today however is at its lowest ebb since Abramovich took over, who will ensure this is changed at any cost.
To understand the current situation, it is important to look at what brought the club to where they are today. The money was important, but if we look at Manchester City who are being similarly funded, sustained successes at an elite level which cannot be simply bought. Historically, Chelsea were seen as the hipster team of England, a British club that played with a continental flair, the zenith of which was seen during the 90’s when players like Ruud Gullit, Gianfranco Zola, Roberto Di Matteo and Marcel Desailly plied their trade at Stamford Bridge. When Mourinho arrived in 2004, this tradition was gutted and thrown aside. The likes of Zola, Desailly and Gullit were replaced by Didier Drogba, John Terry and Claude Makélélé; great players, but never as smooth as their predecessors. The new generation was made in Mourinho’s image, claustrophobically organised, physically imposing and ruthlessly successful.
Mourinho left in the fall of 2007 after three hugely successful seasons but also a great deal of acrimony. Frequent run-ins with rival managers such as Arsene Wenger and Frank Rijkaard along with suspensions and fines made the environment around Stamford Bridge toxic. While the trophies were regularly deposited, this was all readily accepted. But once the success dried up, the board and Abramovich himself lost patience and Mourinho was gone. His legacy remained intact however; the core of the team left behind - Cech, Terry, Lampard and Drogba - always seemed to play the Mourinho way irrespective of which, from the litany of, managers was in charge of the club; until this season.
Mourinho returned for a second spell at the club and delivered the title again in 2014 in crushing fashion. Chelsea was top of the table from the first day until the last. However, from the first day of the following season something at Chelsea seemed amiss. Oscar pointedly refused to celebrate his goal as Chelsea struggled to defeat a mediocre Swansea City team (the previous season Chelsea had defeated Swansea 9-1 over two games) and Mourinho took aim at his doctors after the game while subtly accusing his star player, Eden Hazard of feigning injury. This outburst would be catastrophic for Mourinho, the trust of Hazard was lost and he was never able to get his team to look like champions again. Dr Eva Carneiro embroiled Mourinho and the club in a sexism lawsuit and rival team managers once again faced Mourinho’s wrath.
The mechanical effectiveness of the previous season was replaced by rust and lethargy. Mourinho was fired for the second time in December, with Chelsea languishing in 16th place and relegation seeming a credible threat.
However, had the victories returned, Mourinho would still be the manager of Chelsea Football Club. And within that statement lays the reason for Chelsea hiring a new manager despite the fact that he faces jail in a match-fixing trial. Antonio Conte is immensely successful. Look through the spine of Chelsea’s team and you see these anti-heroes, not only tolerated but venerated by the fans. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was accused of having an affair with a teammate’s girlfriend - a cardinal sin in football. The club captain John Terry was suspended for using racist language on the field and stripped of his England captaincy for having an affair with a teammate’s wife. Cesc Fabregas was accused of throwing pizza at the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. The spearhead of the team is arguably the greatest villain in world football today - Diego Costa. Even the mild-mannered Eden Hazard once kicked a ballboy and was given the unequivocal public support of his club.
In Abramovich’s never ending quest to make Chelsea a member of football’s elite, he has acquiesced to putting success and trophies above public image and technical artistry. Mourinho may leave the club 10 times over but the legacy he created 12 years ago will keep driving this club. The decision to hire Antonio Conte is a reflection of just that. He shares many similarities with Mourinho; pragmatic football, strict disciplinarian, a penchant for bending rules and an insatiable thirst for trophies - The Chelsea Way.
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