Unfriendly Chelsea may soon lose Abramovich

By Simon Griver, May 9, 2008
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The oligarch is deeply hurt that the fans at Stamford Bridge have not warmed to him

Avram Grant has taken the UK by storm. It would be hard to think of another high-profile character in British history who has generated so much pride within the Jewish community while stirring up so much prejudice outside of it. Israelis explain the latter part of the equation in one word or two, depending on how you spell antisemitism, but the reality is more complex.

To be sure, antisemitism and xenophobia play a part in the disdain for Grant, but the most deep-rooted reason for the antagonism still directed towards the Israeli stems from the charge of cronyism — the belief that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich appointed a close friend to be the Blues manager, even though he was hopelessly under-qualified. Vis-à-vis Grant, this cronyism is often mistakenly referred to in the British press as nepotism, somehow reinforcing the myth that Jews are one big tightly knit family who only look after themselves.

Grant, by proving the fans and media wrong and leading Chelsea to their first-ever Champions League final, as well as taking Manchester United to the wire in the Premiere League, deserves an apology, as does Abramovich. In all likelihood, Abramovich only befriended Grant in 2005, when he first met him after Israel’s 2-2 draw in a World Cup qualifier against Ireland, because he saw a football coach with the talent and strength of character who might one day lead Chelsea. The fact that he got along well with Grant and came from the same ethnic background was a secondary bonus. Ultimately the disrespect shown to Grant by fans and media reflects disrespect for Abramovich’s judgment.

Remarkably there is still widespread speculation that Grant will not remain in charge of Chelsea next season. Perhaps more remarkably everybody is overlooking the more obvious question. The question is not how much longer will Grant be at Stamford Bridge but how much longer Abramovich will remain there.

Amid all the emotion of the occasion at Stamford Bridge in the semi-final victory over Liverpool, the fact that Abramovich was not there — nor was he there for the victory over Man Utd the previous Saturday, or the first-leg of the Champions League semi-final at Anfield — has been cast aside. The only reason he will probably turn up for the final is because it is in Russia, where he has reportedly been detained on business and political matters over the past month.

In commenting on the Russian billionaire’s absence, many newspapers have suggested that Abramovich has fallen out of love with Chelsea. This is probably true but not so much because the wealthy oligarch has tired of his toy, but more because the Chelsea fans have consistently shown no love for Abramovich. The Russian was reportedly deeply hurt when the fans took Mourinho’s side in their rift, although he probably understood the furore when he fired the Portuguese and took a gamble on Grant. But the continued sniping at Grant even in the face of success suggests that the Chelsea fans will never warm to Abramovich. Much of the flak of prejudice that Grant is taking is really meant for the Russian owner.

Grant himself could gain more popularity by polishing up his English and lightening up, both by smiling more and shedding a few pounds, although nobody could accuse Abramovich of being overweight or grumpy.

To be sure, much of the prejudice against Abramovich is because he is Russian rather than Jewish. Similarly some of the prejudice against Grant probably stems from national jealousy. In an era when the best manager that England can produce is Steve McClaren, it must be galling to football fans that a coach from a remote outpost in the eastern Mediterranean can show the home of football how it is done.

Yet the entire Chelsea saga has been a win-win situation for all involved. Long-suffering masochistic Chelsea fans like David Mellor have seen their team reach new heights even if they are ungrateful. Media outlets increase their reach on the back of the latest twists and turns of the Chelsea soap opera. Jose Mourinho and even Claudio Ranieri before him left Stamford Bridge as heroes. They may never chant Grant’s name at Stamford Bridge, but with his track record this season, other top clubs will be lining up for him if and when he leaves.

And Abramovich? He has sunk hundreds of millions of pounds into making Chelsea a global brand, but with a buoyant market in English football clubs he could surely recoup all or most of his money if he sold out. My guess is that such a change of ownership could come much sooner than everyone thinks.

Simon Griver covers sport in Israel for the JC

    Last updated: 3:20pm, May 13 2008