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Spectator Sport: A taste for Chelsea

Never an easy team to like, Chelsea. For all but the most devoted, in a match between Chelsea and the Iranian Secret Police it would be a tough one who to support: well, maybe not. Come on you Muhabarat. But something strange is going on in west London: Roman’s centurions are becoming admirable, even likeable. As much as anything, that’s down to one engaging guy, their manager, Carlo Ancelotti. After last weekend’s defeat at Anfield, he didn’t blame anybody, he didn’t moan about his players (hello, Arsène), he just gave fulsome praise to Fernando Torres and the Liverpool defence who stood up to a major second-half battering.

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

13 November 2010

12:00 AM

Never an easy team to like, Chelsea. For all but the most devoted, in a match between Chelsea and the Iranian Secret Police it would be a tough one who to support: well, maybe not. Come on you Muhabarat. But something strange is going on in west London: Roman’s centurions are becoming admirable, even likeable. As much as anything, that’s down to one engaging guy, their manager, Carlo Ancelotti. After last weekend’s defeat at Anfield, he didn’t blame anybody, he didn’t moan about his players (hello, Arsène), he just gave fulsome praise to Fernando Torres and the Liverpool defence who stood up to a major second-half battering.

Never an easy team to like, Chelsea. For all but the most devoted, in a match between Chelsea and the Iranian Secret Police it would be a tough one who to support: well, maybe not. Come on you Muhabarat. But something strange is going on in west London: Roman’s centurions are becoming admirable, even likeable. As much as anything, that’s down to one engaging guy, their manager, Carlo Ancelotti. After last weekend’s defeat at Anfield, he didn’t blame anybody, he didn’t moan about his players (hello, Arsène), he just gave fulsome praise to Fernando Torres and the Liverpool defence who stood up to a major second-half battering.

If you want to get a feel for the real Ancelotti, try his autobiography, The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius, which is unlike any other footballing book I’ve come across. The money from it goes to a foundation to find a cure for motor neurone disease, which has afflicted Ancelotti’s old playing colleague from Serie A, Stefano Borgonovo. Now, writes Ancelotti, Stefano, who talks through a computer voice, ‘speaks with his eyes, literally. He moves his eyes to pick out letters, forming words and phrases and sentences. All you need to do, though, is look at his eyes to understand a great many things, first and foremost that he is more alive than the rest of us put together.’


Clearly, we’re not dealing here with a hairdryer in a tracksuit. The book’s foreword is by the wondrous Paolo Maldini, who was Ancelotti’s captain at Milan for eight trophy-laden years, and he highlights one of the book’s big themes — food. ‘Carletto,’ writes Maldini, ‘never goes overboard — except when he’s eating.’

This is how Ancelotti writes about food: ‘Suddenly I was starving. Which is nothing new really. Meat, fish, red wine, salami, mortadella, romano cheese, a chunk of gorgonzola, fish and chips, layer cake, an after-dinner drink, spaghetti, bowties, pesto, bolognese sauce, a rack of ribs… ’ You get hungry reading him.

The book is full of self-effacing humour too. When Chelsea win their first trophy in the first game of his first season as manager, the Community Shield, he wonders what people think climbing the stairs from the Wembley pitch. ‘I found out soon enough: I have to lose weight. Jesus, yes, I felt like I was climbing Everest.’ (And this is a man who as player with Roma and Milan won three Scudettos, four Italian Cups, and two European Cups.) But when he gets to the top at Wembley, he says, ‘I understood: it was like starting an ascent to heaven.’ He hoists the plate aloft: ‘magic seconds. And then an imperceptible sense of discomfort seized hold of me; but that always happens when I see an empty plate.’

He offers insights, too. Being recruited by Abramovich, he is struck by the billionaire’s shyness, expertise about football, and ravenous appetite for success. But he tells him, ‘Your team is very physical, they need to field a more diverse array of skills.’ And haven’t they just. You find out what it’s like working for Berlusconi (wearing), and Agnelli (brutal), and what he said in the Milan dressing room after the defeat by Liverpool in Istanbul.

He first comes across the prodigious Kaka when he arrives at Milan from Brazil in 2003. ‘He was wearing schoolboy glasses, his hair was neatly brushed and he had the rosy-cheeked face of a straight-A student. All he lacked was a bookbag and a lunchbox.’ Then Kaka starts training, still jet-lagged, and, says Ancelotti, ‘I heard a heavenly choir and the sound of trumpets. He was a heaven-sent genius. Once he got the ball he was incredible. I stopped talking because there were no words to express what I was feeling.’ Maybe it is the beautiful game after all: this book will start to restore your faith.

Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.


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