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The Death of the Idea of Chelsea

What killed it? The Anelka signing, the loss of José Mourinho, the breakup of the G-14, the loss of Avram Grant, the arrival of first Thaksin Shinawatra and then the royal family of Abu Dhabi at Manchester City, and the global credit crisis. It wasn’t the resurgence of Manchester United, although the Glazers’ business model and the cult of Alex Ferguson both offered meaningful alternatives, and although the Champions League final in Moscow last year may go down as the idea’s final, fatal moment.

It wasn’t the resurgence of Manchester United that killed the idea of Chelsea, because the idea of Chelsea was never just about winning. It was about winning in a certain style. It was the idea of the new football club, surrounded by, hated by, and triumphing over old football clubs too slow to adapt to its vision. It was the idea of the decentralized, geographically liberated club free to take players from anywhere, to draw fans from anywhere, to use the immensity of the world economy as a tool to make history irrelevant. Chelsea weren’t the first team to exist more on television than in real life, but they were the first team to make real life seem unnecessary.

Once that was gone, it wouldn’t have mattered if Chelsea had rivals or if they continued to crush the field. They may still crush the field this year—they’re at the top of the table, tied with Liverpool on points but with a huge edge in goal differential—but they’re a different team. That hard, hostile burn that’s surrounded them for the last four or five years is dissipating, if it’s not already gone. Drogba made it flare up again briefly with his outburst at the Burnley game last week, but the furor the incident provoked only served as a reminder of how placid and unremarkable their season has been so far.

At their peak under José Mourinho, Chelsea’s main characteristic was their embattledness, which they exploited so flamboyantly that even their fans didn’t always know what to make of it. They were a team with a philosophy everyone hated (spend as much money as possible to put together the best squad possible with no thought for tradition or balance), playing a style everyone hated (a frequently boring 4-5-1 with very defensive fullbacks) under a manager everyone hated (it’s hard to remember now, but in the time before he began appearing on English-language television largely in puppet form Mourinho provoked more anger than affection) and absolutely obliterating everything they came up against. They got 95 points and 29 wins in 2004-05, with only 15 goals conceded all season—the best of any team since the Football League was founded in 1888. The more outrage they provoked, the more mockery was thrown at Lampard and Mourinho, the more their owner was accused of destroying the soul of football, the more they seemed to win. It was like watching a besieged army somehow conquer the enemy’s country.

What was strange about this was that the future Chelsea represented—and the implicit threat of the club was always that it was the first glimpse of the future of football—looked less like an army than a museum. Early in its existence art is local and integrated into its culture; at some point it becomes disconnected, and the urge to accumulate it into a surveyable whole causes it to be scattered, at greater and greater cost, into miscellaneous collections spread all over the world. If the old way of football—local heroes, fans traveling to the games from their homes every weekend, everyone speaking the same language—was like Rembrandt in Holland in 1655, Chelsea were like a traveling Rembrandt exhibition in the early 21st century: glossy, expensive, assembled from innumerable sources. Of course, the old way of football was already in decline, and in many countries, when Abramovich bought the club in 2003. But the audacity he brought to creating his museum of football talent in the Premier League, with his foreignness, his shady past, his indifference to the established hierarchy of the English game, his positive eagerness to spend reckless sums, brought the point home in an unmistakable new way.

For their lunatic two-year title run from 2004 to 2006, Chelsea had the most outspoken coach, the richest owner, the most expensive, deepest, and most talented squad, the best record, and the most rapidly expanding global fan base, all fueled by the model that made them, depending on where you stood, either the most loathed club in the world or the only way forward for football. It was probably a foregone conclusion that uniqueness like that couldn’t last. Success breeds imitation, and of the owners who followed Abramovich into the Premier League, several—the deposed Prime Minister of Thailand, the mysterious royal family of Abu Dhabi—are even more exotic, and therefore even more “global”, than he is. The Dhabians are potentially richer as well, and at a moment when the collapsing economy has led to a string of alarmist/gloating headlines about the ways in which Chelsea are being forced to cut back, having a new symbol of fiscal opulence has given the press less reason to follow Chelsea’s every move.

It’s also the case that the ways in which Chelsea changed the game have normalized them to some extent, both on and off the pitch. It was Chelsea’s behind-the-scenes campaigning, for instance, that by many accounts undid the G-14. But the loss of the superclub collective that excluded them for so many years has meant that Chelsea are no longer quite so visibly at odds with the rest of the footballing world. Their old aura of controversial newness has inexorably diminished in a context in which they are only one among many big clubs with worldwide interests and complex financial arrangements to worry about.

For me, though, the two events that most signalled the death of the idea of Chelsea were the replacement of Mourinho and Grant with Phil Scolari and the signing of Nicolas Anelka. José Mourinho, and Grant after him, were both unconventional choices to manage the club and both underscored its contempt for all established possibilities and its determination to write a new script. Mourinho had won the European Cup, but with Porto, of all teams; he was young, arrogant, and unpredictable. Grant was simply inexperienced in every way, and with neither man could you ever quite guess what you were getting. Bringing in Scolari, by contrast, represented a sharp turn toward conventional wisdom: he was a known quantity, a World Cup winner and universally acknowledged prestige coach, and his tenure at Chelsea so far has been smooth and careful, lacking even so much as a public outburst of his famous fiery temper.

In the same way, in signing Anelka, Chelsea simply overpaid for a player whom everyone else had already overpaid for, then made him the centerpiece of their 2008-09 season. There was nothing wrong with the move, but there was nothing defiant or different about it, either. The insecure and mercurial Drogba might not have been an obviously better face for the club than the insecure and mercurial Anelka, but in practice Anelka has acted like he’s out for redemption and Drogba has acted like he scorns the very thought of it. The standard redemption/hero narrative has no place within the idea of Chelsea, where even the England stalwarts are chased out the window by the boyfriends of pin-up girls. Just as Scolari’s famous volatility has seemed tempered since he arrived at Stamford Bridge, in other words, Anelka’s poutiness actually seems to have a soothing effect on the club. Which may say something about the character of the club before he arrived.

I miss Chelsea. I miss Mourinho’s press conferences, I miss Avram Grant’s grim pledges to craft a fun-loving team, I miss having that meteoric, vicious, farcical, unstoppable force. You could hate Chelsea for a lot of different reasons, but you couldn’t deny that they were fascinating, and you couldn’t deny that their presence raised the stakes of any competition they entered. For as long as it lasts, football will always reabsorb the affronts that are thrown up against its traditions, and it’s that drama that makes it move forward, as the philosopher said. The idea of Chelsea and the death of the idea of Chelsea showed us that process in a very pure state. They’ve begun to imitate the rest of football at precisely the moment when the rest of football has begun to imitate them.

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The Death of the Idea of Chelsea

by Brian Phillips · November 17, 2008

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