Alexei Smertin: The football explorer for whom life is an open book

From Siberia to Chelsea, from Nabokov to Dickens, there always is much to discover. Jason Burt meets a man loving his journey
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The Independent Online

Last spring Alexei Smertin turned up at the Dorset home of the author John Fowles to introduce himself and say what a fan of his work he was. Before that, when he played for Bordeaux, he had sought out Eauze, a "tiny, tiny town" in Gascogny, to trace the origins of D'Artagnan because of his love for Alexandre Dumas. Now, even the memory of it, amid the chaotic clamour of Chelsea's training ground, provokes a light-hearted swashbuckling flourish in the air with an imaginary sword. Indeed he even seems to model his hairstyle on those Musketeers.

More recently, Smertin has been to 221b Baker Street in London, the residence of the fictional Sherlock Holmes, and is currently researching the life of Charles Dickens, a history that stretches between the city where Smertin played his football last season, Portsmouth, which was Dickens's birthplace, and his whereabouts this season. As does that of Holmes's creator, Arthur Conan Doyle who, famously, helped found Portsmouth FC and, legend has it, was their first goalkeeper.

It takes an inquisitive mind to undertake such tasks, and find such happy, peculiar synergies, and Smertin certainly has that. All his life he has been an explorer. It is what comes from being born and raised in the harsh remoteness of Barnaul, a city in southern Siberia with 100 factories - one of which both his parents used to work in. It is also what comes from being one of life's achievers, and talking to him is a pleasantly uplifting experience. But if football is Smertin's passion, literature is his love.

He is reticent, hiding behind his claim of broken English, a language he is fiercely determined to conquer, to discuss his status in Russia, which he will return to this week with Chelsea in the Champions' League, to play CSKA Moscow. "I'm so shy I can't answer that," says the captain of the national team when asked how "big" he is back home. (The answer is very).

But Smertin is more comfortable when, by chance, the conversation turns to the books he has read and the influence they have had upon him. It's not often that a footballer cites Nabokov, Balzac and Platonov. After all, it may, to some ears, sound like a potential new midfield at Stamford Bridge.

"I'm very curious, I like to discover," Smertin says as he explains his trip to Lyme Regis, his walk along the Cobb, the giant stone jetty which inspired Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, and the afternoon he spent with his "favourite writer" and his wife. They got on so well that "he [Fowles] wasn't interested in football but now he supports Chelsea and the Russian national team," Smertin says proudly. He undertook the visit with Jim Riordan, a Russian-speaking professor and Portsmouth fan. "But now little by little I'm learning English so there's not enough time to read books," Smertin adds. He wants to read in the language, as he can do in French after three years in Ligue 1.

What he also wants to do is write his own chapter in Chelsea's history. "This is a big step up for me," the midfielder says, having finally, after his year-long loan, made it to Stamford Bridge. "It's a big difference but I'm 29 now and I've moved from a Russian club to a French club to here. When it comes to the end of my career I'd like to have won something. And I can win with Chelsea. It's more likely." It's also, given Roman Abramovich's outlay, an imperative.

Smertin was the eighth signing in the frenzied summer of 2003 and his arrival, for £3.45 million, immediately aroused suspicion. Some said that Abramovich was doing a favour for his friend Alexander Mamut, who had planned to take over Torpedo Moscow, buy Smertin and build a team around him. But the talks broke down, Smertin was left in limbo and, so the theory goes, Abramovich stepped in. Others say simply that the signing was the billionaire's peace offering to counter Russian claims that he should be investing more money there. It is a tale - true or false - worthy of Holmes's casebook.

Smertin is quick to dismiss such rumours and, given his high-energy performances for both Portsmouth and Chelsea, even if they are accurate they are now pretty irrelevant. "When I went to England, as soon as I signed the contract with Chelsea, I went to Portsmouth," he says. Smertin knew that was the deal. "And it was a good idea. I spoke to [Claudio] Ranieri [the then Chelsea coach] and Abramovich and I felt it was good to go, to adapt, to learn the language. It was a smaller club and it was easier to play. I really enjoyed it there."

It was something of a baptism of fire. "I arrived and the season had already started," Smertin says. "I had no pre-season training. The first game I played was against Wolves, just 15 minutes, and it was very tough. They were very physical, not very skilful. It was hard." But afterwards there was praise. "They [Portsmouth] had an expression for me. I played, I started, like I belonged." By the time he left, the team revolved around him.

It helped that Smertin was an enthusiast. "I always wanted to play in England," he says. "It's a style that I wanted to play." He continues: "In France there is a big difference. In everything - the supporters, the atmosphere, the stadium, the referees. Everything here is honest. It's an attitude I like. In France it is too tactical." Smertin is now, of course, playing for one of the most tactically astute coaches in the Premiership, Jose Mourinho. Although he enjoyed his time on loan and maintains that he wasn't "worried" about playing for Chelsea "because keeping Portsmouth in the Premiership was my preoccupation", come the end of last season he wanted to make the move. "I always remembered that I was on loan," Smertin says, explaining how mentally tough that can be. "And it's not easy to play on loan."

Euro 2004, especially as it was held in Portugal, was his chance to shine. Unfortunately, so depleted were Russia that he was shoehorned into the unfamiliar role of central defender and his country endured a miserable tournament. "We played badly and I was worried about my future," he now admits. After Russia's second match - he was suspended for the third - he met Mourinho in Lisbon. The two talked in French.

"He said I counted for him," says Smertin who had heard good things about the new coach from Dmitry Alenichev, who played under him at Porto. "He said he was a good manager," Smertin recalls. "A good coach. Strong. He likes order." Abramovich was also reassuring, although Smertin insists he has no special bond with Chelsea's owner beyond their shared nationality. "I've got a good relationship with him, like everyone at Chelsea, because I see him after every game," Smertin says, "he comes to the dressing room and he speaks English. Before I had heard of him and knew about him as a businessman, of course." But that's it.

The presence of Abramovich - and Smertin - means that Chelsea's game against CSKA is a sell-out. Among the crowd will be his brother, Yevgeny, himself a former player, who is six years older and Smertin's "role model".

Interest in Chelsea in Russia is immense. "I can assure you that Chelsea is the most popular [foreign] team in Russia now," he says. Bigger, even, than Real Madrid or Manchester United. "Chelsea have always been popular. I don't know why. Even before Abramovich. They are a famous, famous club. But people like English football in general." It makes Smertin proud. And a little nervous. "Maybe I should change my mobile [phone]," he says, with a laugh, as he anticipates the reaction once the team plane touches down later today. "But it's something special for me to play against a Russian team. This is my fifth season abroad and it's the first time."

Smertin was something of a late starter in other respects. It wasn't until 24 that he left the -30C cold of Siberia, simply because there it is hard to get noticed. "Everything in Russia revolves around Moscow," Smertin says. He went from Dinamo Barnaul to Vorochilovgrad. But it was not until he signed for Uralan Elista, who made it into the Russian Premiership, that he finally got his break.

From there he was picked up by Lokomotiv Moscow. "It has been little by little," he says. "But it's very hard [to leave Siberia]. Some people don't believe me when I describe my childhood because I played every year for three months on the snow. I mixed ice hockey with football. I was happy, really happy. We were just an ordinary family but my father coached my brother and I. He wanted us to become professional footballers."

Smertin himself now has a son, who is six, along with his Siberian wife, Larisa. The family live in London and "love it". "His English is better than mine," Smertin says of his son, although he laments the fact that he has "completely forgotten" his "perfect French". One day Smertin will return home, with his family, for good. Until then he will continue to explore; continue to ask questions. Both of himself and where he is.

Biography

Alexei Smertin

Born: 1 May 1975 in Barnaul, Russia.

Family: married to Larisa, with one son, six years old.

Height: 5ft 10in. Weight: 12st 6lb.

Position: Defensive midfielder.

International career: Russia, 42 caps, including 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004. Made captain in June 2004. No international goals.

Club career: Lokomotiv Moscow (July 1998-May 2000); Bordeaux (Aug 2000-Aug 2003); Chelsea (August 2003-present, having been bought for £3.45m). Loaned to Portsmouth from August 2003-May 2004 and made 30 appearances. Returned to Chelsea for beginning of current season. Has scored once (v Porto) in 12 matches.

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