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Chelsea’s Loss and the Corruption of the Tribe

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Tell me how you play and I will tell you who you are. In its game against Inter Milan, Chelsea’s defense was disjointed, its midfield exposed, and its strikers, who rely on the quick up-field pass from their defenders and midfielders to launch their counter-strike, were stranded and mostly impotent. Chelsea was even worse in Saturday’s game against Manchester City, a team whose lack of creativity is interrupted only by its bursts of lethargy. And while two games do not make psychological study, for teams playing to win the title, the margin of error is so minute, each point so important, that the points-possible pyramid is inverted: when teams in the bottom-half of the standings win, it is a victory – the reason why they play the game – and they gain three points. When teams at the top win, they are maintaining their position. When they lose, they drop three points. They have slipped. Maintaining or slipping comes down to the culture of the team, the connecting genetic strand that is its personality.

Inter Milan took it to them and took it to them hard, striking quickly, decisively and without fear. José Mourinho ran his Inter team with two strikers attacking Chelsea’s flanks, a formation Chelsea does not normally see, especially with the high quality and great movement that Inter showed. Chelsea had to play without their injured left full-back Ashley Cole and the lack of cohesion showed. Cole is not only an excellent defender who works well with center-back John Terry to shut down attacks, he is also a strong force on the left side. Quick and with a strong sense of when to commit, Cole will sprint forward in attack, pulling opponents down field in their attempt to cover him. John Terry, who has looked wobbly for months, looked bad as Chelsea was beaten 2-1 in the first of two Champions League games against Inter Milan, the trophy, the one that says you are the best club in Europe, is the trophy Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea, covets most.

All four goals Man City scored were a result of an unsettled, vulnerable Chelsea defense. The first goal was a result of a comedy of errors by Chelsea, including a John Terry mishit. The second came because the Chelsea defense was caught out of position on a counter-strike. With the defense in disarray, Chelsea’s Belletti opted to bang down Gareth Barry inside the penalty box instead of let him get a clean shot. Belletti got a red card for his efforts and while he was heading to an early shower City scored the penalty kick. The fourth came when City perfectly played a five-on-three counter-attack. Chelsea’s defense is a shambles.

It’s hard to believe that Chelsea’s defense would be in such disarray if Mourinho was still the coach of Chelsea. In his three years at the helm, the coach from Portugal won more trophies than any other coach in the one hundred years of Chelsea’s history and he did so by knowing the Anglo-Saxon culture of English football. This is a culture based in the history of the region: a social structure of people banded together in tribes and led by a chieftain. José was that chieftain. He used his charisma, attacked referees, manipulated the press, won trophies, and created and “us against them” mentality. Banded together around the Captain, John Terry, Chelsea players ganged up on opposing players and broke the gentleman’s rule that said only the Captain would speak to the referee. Mourinho’s men swarmed referees, cajoling, complaining, seeking any advantage, any gain however slight. Tactically, this played out in tight formations, physical aggression, implicit understanding of one another, and the mental toughness to endure the entire game and give no quarter.

Trophies were not enough for the owner Abramovich, the orphan turned billionaire; he wanted his team to be loved internationally. Chelsea’s style of play was considered by many to be ugly, anti-football. Fans looking for a winner’s bandwagon to jump on would wear a Chelsea jersey but those who wanted to watch “The Beautiful Game” were turned off. When the owner bought players that didn’t fit into Mourinho’s scheme then insisted they play, an ego tug-of-war ensued and being a practical man, José knew that when Chelsea’s form slipped a bit, only one outcome was possible. Abramovich is a man who when serving in the Russian military stole gas and sold it internationally. Abramovich is a man who has admitted to spending billions bribing government officials to get what he wanted. He would not stop until he had the team that he wanted.

Mourinho departed mid-season and was replaced by Avram Grant, a man Abramovich had brought in, against Mourinho’s opinion, earlier in the season. To the players, Grant was an interloper and a rich man’s tool. Add to that the fact that Grant has the charisma of Jabba the Hutt, players among the highest paid in the world, and you have a man who would never get locker room respect. This lack of respect became a spectacle in the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Manchester United.

In the middle of the second half, the gentleman’s rule of kicking the ball out of bounds when a player is down – regardless if he’s an opponent – was ignored by Chelsea who pushed forward and tried to gain an advantage. With the game still tied and in the second period of extra time, a Chelsea player went down. The Man U striker Carlos Tevez grabbed the ball and went to throw the ball into play when Chelsea, led by John Terry, swarmed him. Trash talk followed and Drogba slapped a Man U player in the face. Touching a player’s face is an automatic red card and Drogba was expelled from the game. John Terry showed his idea of what a Captain does in such a situation by sneaking up behind Tevez and spitting on him.

Down to ten men and with a penalty kick shoot-out minutes away, Grant sent Anelka onto the field. Anelka, a Frenchman whose career alternates between moments of goal-scoring brilliance and the petulance of a child actor, was brought to Chelsea in case Drogba left to follow Mourinho and was unhappy to sit on the bench. When the game did turn to a shoot-out, Grant looked at the list he’d drawn for the first five shooters, crossed out Drogba’s name, replaced it with Anelka’s, and had word passed to the striker. With the first round of shots being best of five and with Man U scoring four out of five and Chelsea at four out of four, one more goal and Chelsea would be Club Champions of Europe. Anelka refused to take the shot. John Terry stepped in, took the kick like a defender would, slipped in the mud and missed. The shots then went to sudden-death, Anelka took a half-hearted shot, missed and Man U took won.

Without Mourinho, Chelsea was a tribe without a chieftain and as Abramovich fired Grant and cycled through three more managers in two years the tribe did as they pleased. And now the scandals are coming to light and the repercussions are being felt.

John Terry cheated on his wife with the partner of his former friend and teammate, Wayne Bridge. Terry tried to keep it quiet by filing an injunction and paying the woman, Vanessa Perroncel, reportedly over a million dollars. Perhaps this was why Terry was also trying to sell special tours of the Chelsea training grounds during his off time.

The soccer side of things became more complicated when Ashley Cole sustained a broken ankle. That injury means he is unlikely to be able to play his starting left-back position for the English National Team in this year’s World Cup. Who is second choice to play in defense next to John Terry? Wayne Bridge. After thinking about it for several weeks, Bridge has decided to turn his back on England and the World Cup, stating, “I believe my position in the squad is now untenable and potentially divisive.” Bridge, who now plays club ball for Manchester City, refused to shake Terry’s hand when they met for Saturday’s game.

And now another scandal, this one involving Ashley Cole. The married Cole reportedly used Chelsea staff and resources to get women into his hotel room during Chelsea’s summer trip through the United States. Abramovich had had enough and told his staff to fine Cole in excess of $600,000. Cole complained that he was being treated unfairly, after all, Terry wasn’t fined and in fact was given time off to fly to Dubai to meet with his wife. Cole and the Chelsea staff have yet to meet.

And so the saga continues, but more importantly, so does the aging of the Chelsea players. Abramovich didn’t create a robust youth system to feed new talent to his team: he spent hundreds of millions buying those who were the best at the time he was shopping, most of whom have another year of playing at the highest level. After that, he’ll either need to restock or sell the club. There’s no reason to believe he’s in it for the long haul, despite what his PR people say.

The departure of their owner would mean Chelsea sink back a little into their more familiar orbit of the top ten. Bandwagon fans would drop off and the dream of becoming an international brand would die but soccer is a resilient sport. With patience and realistic expectations, fans and players could rediscover the passion that comes from being a member of a loyal tribe.

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About Earl G. Lundquist