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.
It’s something I think murderers struggle with; there are defining acts. It’s possible to do something that becomes more you than you are. I have no idea whether you live in the Middle Ages, but if you do, and you buy an indulgence, can you ever stop being the guy who bought an indulgence? You had twenty florins, and you thought they were the same as your soul. That’s a forever-type deal, as a priest once said to me. Now, maybe the world is a vale of soul-making, and maybe you’d like that to mean that you’re always freely forging your identity. But at some point, if you do a thing finally enough, it means your soul is already made.
Which is where the concept of atonement comes in, of course. There has to be a way to change without losing yourself, a reset or a re-centering that makes you you in the present and untethers you from that angular, shadowed, monster thing of the past. But that’s just as terrifying, really, because if you atone wrong, if you’re insincere or ulterior or if you cut corners or if you think it’s a game, you wind up freezing the process and being tethered to the atonement, too. After you buy an indulgence, you cannot buy an indulgence, and what you do to get out of Siberia can be just as hard to escape as what you did to get in.
Somewhere there’s a science-fiction story, I think it’s by Ursula K. LeGuin, though there are probably fifty sci-fi stories on the same theme and if I’m wrong about this particular one then go with my example anyway because it’s the one that fits the point, about a city where everyone is happy and the sun never stops shining and people are good at the flute, only it all rests on some dark mysterious pact whereby all their happiness is paid for by the suffering of a single child. They stage summery festivals; the child is malnourished in a closet, for all time. If they let the child out, they go back to whatever life was like before they got their flutes. The child is expiating something, something they did or the general evil of the world, I don’t know, but it’s some kind of atonement, and a bad one, although the story is vague on that point. So what’s the essence of the city, the city or the child? They’re both necessary. But if you had to name one, I think you’d name the child.
So welcome to history’s least probable introduction to the theme of Avram Grant, who was Chelsea’s expiation, savior, and victim, and who is now their telltale heart and skeleton in the closet. A while ago I wrote an absolutely brilliant post called “The Death of the Idea of Chelsea,” in which I absolutely brilliantly argued that the firing of José Mourinho and the turn to Phil Scolari signified the end of the unique, hostile, and bitterly hated approach to football that Chelsea exemplified during the early Abramovich years, when they were setting fires in the barley fields and throwing statues into the sea. Events, particularly during this season, when they won the title with a lot of kid-friendly scoring and made the world okay with Frank Lampard, have borne that out. Chelsea are no longer the richest, meanest, most monument-toppling club on earth; they’re just a deep, athletic team with a famous coach. Does anyone even still hate them? Compared to 2006, 2010 sees Chelsea looking a little more like the rest of football and the rest of football looking a little more like Chelsea. Hegel, you win again.
What I didn’t write about in that earlier post was how Avram Grant was the figure who enabled this transformation. This is all lost in the mist-shrouded history of 30 months ago, but you might remember how when Mourinho resigned/was sacked/flouted Abramovich/was thrown in the river by ex-KGB, Grant was tasked with changing the identity of the club, only in the worst possible way. Abramovich realized they were boring, wanted to score 100 goals a season and win games 8-0 (like that could ever happen), and told Grant, who was then only slightly more dour and ponderous than a thousand-year-old sponge on the ocean floor, that his job was to make Chelsea “entertaining.”
Vast and elaborate discomforts flowed from this directive. There was clearly underlying it a recognition that Chelsea were hated, that they were too arrogant, embattled, and (tempermentally and tactically) defensive, and that things needed to change. The TV audience likes pretty football, and the same calculus that originally turned angry into epic at Chelsea was brought to bear on beauty, and came up with entertainment. But if your team is hated for being too arrogant, you can’t possibly make them liked by declaring from on high that you’re going to play entertaining football. Pledging entertaining football is Babe Ruth calling his shot; it’s the most arrogant move there is, which is why teams that are loved for doing it almost always keep it tied to an ideology. You’re saying that not only are you going to win, winning will be so easy for you that you can promise to do it with style. Chelsea were making a conciliatory statement, then fusing ermine to it and wrapping it around their shoulders. And the person they sent out to catwalk this mess was Avram Grant.
Which was the second of the major discomforts. Grant was not only the least likely candidate to bring tidings of fun to the people—a sludge monster with jowls of doom and a baleful croak of a voice—he was also completely untested. Chelsea was his first job outside Israel, which meant that, as far as the narrative megalith of English-speaking soccer was concerned, it was his first job, period. Before it, he had merely drifted through the machinery, looking for strings to pull and scenes to stand behind. So now the least obviously entertaining life form in the galaxy was promising entertainment; the least experienced coach in soccer was promising superlative victories; a man with no apparent claim to straight-faced hubris was calling down the gods in a granitic, expressionless monotone. It was a script, it was obviously a script, even if he’d volunteered it or had it willingly coaxed out of him. But he was the one reading it, and that was all.
Chelsea kept winning games. Grant put together a 16-match unbeaten streak, didn’t drop a game at home, pulled the team level on points with Manchester United, took them to the final of the Carling Cup, beat Man City 6-0, beat Liverpool to reach the Champions League final. But the fans loathed him (they booed his substitutions against Arsenal, then watched the subs win the game), the players sniped at him in the press, and all the conflicts that his appointment was supposed to cool were suddenly even hotter and more dangerous than they had been under Mourinho. He spent the whole season in a weird cocoon of nameless humiliations, at odds with everyone, more defensive than anyone, somehow more angry and imperiled the more he managed to win.
In other words, he became more Chelsea than Chelsea. And at the end of the year, despite the team coming within the margin of pure chance in at least two of the competitions they entered (say, Berbatov’s penalty in the Carling Cup and Terry’s slip in the Champions League final), they fired him. When he left, some meaningful part of the hostility and defiance that had defined the club left with him. It flared up again at times—Drogba didn’t suddenly start making friends, and the scene after the Barcelona loss happened—but in general, the players and the fans seemed tired of it. The club used the managerial turnover to re-establish itself as a mainstream Big Club, you would have said in the G-14 model except that Chelsea had already burned down the G-14. They brought in Scolari, a known quantity with an established pedigree, then brought in the even more acclaimed, and even more safe, Hiddink and Ancelotti. Terry smiled more, at least until the Wayne Bridge’s Girlfriend incident robbed him of his life, his fortune, and his sacred honour. England forgave Lampard for whatever it was he’d done wrong. Ashley Cole did nothing, but it redeemed him for some reason. Chelsea developed a style of football that was entertaining, in a way.
And Grant, who hadn’t deserved to become the Chelsea manager and didn’t deserve to be fired as the Chelsea manager, went on, not shattered, not visibly any more slumped or granitic than he’d been before, but as a walking reminder of what Chelsea had been, what they’d purged, and what they’d sacrificed. They’re not as interesting as they used to be. They’ve just beaten his Portsmouth team 1-0 in the FA Cup final. I wanted him to beat Chelsea by five, for their sake.
by Brian Phillips · May 15, 2010