The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Am I alone in not having seen this coming? I thought that once he made it through January the club would be tacitly committed to giving him the rest of the season. And then I thought the decision would depend on whether there was another monstrously famous manager to take his place, because while Chelsea could do the Real Madrid move and hire a tenuous caretaker on a “part of a season and then we’ll see” basis if they gave him half a year and an aura of emergency—see Avram Grant—they wouldn’t want to look small by doing that during the off-season. I thought January would be the cutoff, because what manager this side of Joe Kinnear would move to a club as fickle as Chelsea on a four-month contract?
I had it all wrong, obviously. Scolari was more expendable than I thought, Abramovich was more volatile, and the club’s sense of what was due to it was very possibly less fustian, at least if the rumor about bringing in Gianfranco Zola and Steve Clarke as a “dream managerial duo” is to be believed. (Whose dream? What kind of dream? At what stage of sleep does an id-addled supporter start to fantasize about replacing a World Cup winner with an utterly unproved ex-player whose entire managerial record is nine wins out of twenty-four games at West Ham?) You can’t accuse Chelsea of playing by the sensible odds. Their particular form of hobbyist autocracy (hobarchy? petocracy? fununism?) is built to be surprising, and apparently it still can be.
That said, it’s the timing that startles, not the event itself. Considering that the wave of enthusiasm on which Scolari swept into Chelsea included seriously-intended debates about whether he or Alex Ferguson was the greater manager, his seven months at the club have been ludicrously disappointing. You know the lowlights: Chelsea lost at Stamford Bridge in October for the first time since 2004, dropped 16 points at home, couldn’t play consistently, lost the charge of being Manchester United’s top rivals to Liverpool, never worked out their tactics, never figured out how to play Drogba with Anelka or which of them to play separately, lost to Burnley in the Carling Cup, couldn’t beat any of the big four, fell behind Aston Villa in the league table, etc. None of this was necessarily all that shocking given that Scolari’s reputation as a club coach was almost entirely based on his work in the Brazilian league in the mid-90s and that his international career was arguably less impressive than it looked. But he was such a star, such a grumpy icon, that seeing him flummoxed and unsure of himself was actually a little unnerving.
You could see it right away, though, in the total failure of his supposedly larger-than-life persona to manifest itself in England. The media love the idea of a coach whose manliness his players can never equal, and the whole “Big Phil” identity—the coach who punched a player!—was predicated on the notion that he would accept no nonsense and would instantly command the respect of his millionaire charges via the power of his unquestionable pheromones. The papers—you can see it in their treatment of Alex Ferguson and certainly in their treatment of Fabio Capello—have a deep unexamined desire to see players disciplined and punished, and Scolari was supposed to be the end-all of end-alls in that respect.
But the man who appeared before the podium turned out to be grayly meek, like a rhinoceros on its best behavior. It was as if he misread the global mood (or possibly accurately read the willingness of his boss to tolerate another rampaging ego) and decided to shelve the Big Phil character in favor of a drab, practical, businesslike functionary. It wasn’t that he became obliging, just that his aloofness seemed to be pre-configured with an element of diffident resignation. For the club to fire him today suggests that the swirl of rumors about the way he’d lost the locker room may have had some substance, and based on his entire demeanor since he took the job, it’s no wonder. The players must have been confused as much as anything.
Who should replace him? If I were Roman Abramovich I’d probably be landing a helicopter on Martin O’Neill’s lawn today and possibly leaving him the keys. But I’d guess that instead we’ll work through the usual list of top out-of-work coaches (Frank Rijkaard), improbable prodigals (Mourinho or Grant), and plausible longshots (Bernd Schuster). Guus Hiddink, who’s done wonders with Abramovich’s other private club, is another interesting prospect. And then, based solely on the rumors current with the press, which could change at any moment, Zola, odd as it seems, is looking like the front-runner.
We probably won’t know until the grim stone wheels stop grinding behind Abramovich’s laconic face. (I almost wrote “visage,” which seems like too much, but also not.) If you see him, and he looks like he’s even more intensely than usual in that Abramovich place where nausea meets insouciance, try calling out a name. If he says nothing and sparks come out of his eyes, send me an email.
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by Brian Phillips · February 9, 2009[contact-form 5 'Email form']