There’s a rough old whiff emanating from Stamford Bridge these days, and the source of the stench is Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner. Roberto di Matteo, the manager he sacked last week, was the eighth dismissed since he bought the club in 2003. That’s quite a turn-over, even for an oligarch who likes to get his own way, but getting rid of di Matteo is significant because the Italian delivered the prize most coveted by Abramovich, the European Cup. Not even José Mourinho could get that into the Chelsea trophy cabinet. When it comes to football, the world is not enough for Roman Abramovich. In fairness to the unshaven money machine, I know people who have worked for him, and they have nothing but admiration for his kindness, charm and generosity. Seriously.
To be the manager of Chelsea, even an interim one like Rafa Benitez, your CV has to display a major European trophy (Champions or Europa League), and/or a title in one or more of the major European Leagues (Spain, Italy, Germany — Holland or Portugal at a push), and/or the World Cup and/or the European Championship. It also helps considerably if you haven’t been sacked by Abramovich before. It’s a narrow field and not one that is going to overly stretch the executive search department at Stamford Bridge.
But if you want to be the man whom the man who already has every-thing really wants, the final piece of the jigsaw is that you have to be able not just to win everything, but to win it playing like Barcelona. In short, the best thing one could place beneath the Abramovich Christmas tree is a Pep -Guardiola-shaped parcel.
Has any out-of-work football manager ever been in a stronger position? Guardiola sits in Manhattan enjoying a well-earned sabbatical and he can pick and choose the suitors he sees. No one really knows if he can do any wrong, because if he did he had Xavi, Iniesta and Messi to put things right. He will always be the man who ran the greatest club side that ever crouched for a pre-match photo. He can name his price and draft his own contract. Real power in football is to be the manager that Chelsea wants and can’t have. It must stink to be Roman Abramovich.
Another sporting character who has been in bad odour recently is Kevin Pietersen. It must suck to have to ‘reintegrate’ yourself into a dressing room full of Twitter wits who resent your genius and the inflated ego that accompanies it. But dear old KP appears to have done a fantastic job of being reintegrated.
For an England team to win any Test match in India is an achievement, but the four-day triumph in Mumbai was extra special. India prepared a pitch suited to their bowling attack (one seamer, three spinners), then won the toss and batted. Monty Panesar took the wickets on a surface on which he would be expected to, but KP put on a batting masterclass when even the locals found the going too tough. Let’s hope that none of his team-mates are relaunching a KPGenius Twitter feed, even if this time they really mean it.
Meanwhile, in the City last week a 13-year-old partially sighted schoolgirl called Lois Turner held a black-tie audience spellbound with an account of how learning to play cricket had changed her life. Without a trace of self-pity, she said, ‘At school I was that weird girl in the corner who nobody noticed.’ Now cricket had bought her friendship and admiration. ‘Everyone’s the same,’ she said, ‘and deserves the same chance in life.’ The event was to raise money for the cricket charity A Chance to Shine and its sister charity, Streetchance. If you’ve got any cash to give away this Christmas, do spare a thought for Lois (www.chancetoshine.org or www.streetchance.org).
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012