Chelsea’s fans might feel uncomfortable at the thought of Rafa Benitez at the helm, but is that sense of unease misdirected? Perhaps the anger directed at the Spaniard is merely a proxy for the uncomfortable realities his arrival has stirred deep within fans’ hearts about their relationship with the club’s owner.
The words Benitez is credited with five years ago, and which are apparently immortalised at Mellwood, would cut deep into any football fan:
‘We don’t need to give away flags for our fans to wave – our supporters are always there with their hearts, and that is all we need. It’s the passion of the fans that helps to win matches – not flags.’
So understandably, he got a less than rapturous welcome last Sunday. But beneath all the ire, wasn’t there the beginnings of some soul searching for fans who have been treated to a decade of over-performance but are now wondering if the price they paid for that was too high?
The arrival of Benitez hasn’t merely given the Chelsea fans a new chapter in the emotional soap opera of supporting a football team. Getting into bed with the enemy has forced them to acknowledge that perhaps they already decided to sell out when Abramovic arrived.
In accepting his buy-out, they accepted his model for the future: he would bring them success, but at the cost of it all being totally on his terms. In no sense is Chelsea anything but Roman Abramovic’s club. Nobody is entitled to a say in how it’s run: not fans, not coaches; not players. If Roman wants it, it happens, and everyone has to lump it.
And those terms have brought the club a Champions League and a clutch of other trophies. Although he was struggling, there were plenty of people who felt Andre Vilas-Boas, brought in to bring about a revolution, should have been given more time. They were probably right, but Abramovic lives in the present, pulled the trigger, and in just over six months had won the biggest club trophy in the world.
Dictatorships aren’t nice, but they often get results, at least for those who share the same aims as the dictator. What matters then is what you’re willing to tolerate to enjoy sharing the success. Abramovic will do what he wants, bring in who he wants, spend what he wants. I’m sure he’ll not be bothered if supporters don’t like that and decide to go off and support someone else instead (as if a real fan could actually do that!) After all, his business model is hardly reliant on bums-on-seats, but instead looks to pile his billions in while just about staying the right side of the UEFA FFP regulations.
It’s interesting that, while FC United sprung up in protest at the management at Old Trafford, there have been no similar manifestations of dissent from Chelsea. Are they really protesting against Benitez, or are they subconsciously plucking up the courage to complain about their ownership model?
Chelsea’s fans have a moral dilemma. What makes them uneasy has brought them unprecedented success. Are they actually willing to jetison that? After all, Abramovic is making the trains run on time.