Football: Chelsea revel in the unreal

Nick Townsend in Monaco sees Super Cup play into hands of Super League opponents
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The Independent Online
SO, THE kings of Spain failed to singe Ken Bates's beard, and a mere three weeks into the season, the bombastic Chelsea chairman already has a first trophy to place on that proverbial Stamford Bridge mantelpiece. Say what you will, after so many years gathering dust that particular piece of furniture is beginning to creak under the weight of the darn things.

"Three cups in six months..." Gianluca Vialli savoured the image and could scarcely comprehend his fortune as he considered the latest acquisition in the bowels of the Stade Louis II (they obviously haven't told him that cups are like London buses; you wait an eternity for one and then three come along together).

Yet, it was all a strangely subdued aftermath, because the problem comes when you start examining the quality of the latest pot. A League Cup and a European Cup-Winners' Cup under Vialli, since his accession to Ruud Gullit's throne, have an accepted hallmark, but a Uefa Super Cup, the consequence of the Uruguayan Gustavo Poyet's late winner, does not bear such close inspection and would not fool the experts in the least. Which undoubtedly explains why the majority of those fanatics were absent from the 10,000 crowd, among whom the genuine followers of either side who had made the effort appeared to be out-numbered by the great, the good, and the here-for- the-goodies brigade - the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, his IOC counterpart Juan, Antonio Samaranch, and our very own Chelsea devotee and Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, were among those present - in the VIP area.

Yet, if captain Dennis Wise felt it was all as slightly unreal as Madrid were on the night when he raised the most recent addition to the family silver to the skies, he didn't betray it. Neither did the remainder of Vialli's cosmopolitan combination who, as the public address blared out that ubiquitous theme, Queen's "We Are The Champions", linked hands and like lost performers from Riverdance dashed in formation across the pitch before diving none too graciously a la Jurgen Klinsmann.

Only the heartless would have denied the players their moment, just as Peter Osgood, Charlie Cooke and Ron Harris and Co did against the same club, seven-times champions of Europe, when they met in a Cup-Winners' Cup final in Athens, suitably fuelled by a day's poolside binge, 27 years ago.

It was just that, frankly, unlike that scene of Chelsea's first European triumph, this wasn't the moment, and the incongruity of it all, as the locals drifted away and even the committed provided a less than heart- felt response, bordered on the surreal. There was no doubt that Chelsea fully merited their win, confounding such world- class names as Raul, Mijatovic and Roberto Carlos, all be it one inflicted on a side behind them in terms of preparation and who do not play their first domestic league game until tomorrow night.

Yet, the players' antics seemed about as phoney as the 90-minute war that preceded them. It was, in truth, played in the atmosphere of a testimonial and the significance was not lost on critics of a European Super League that the contest was staged only a few hundred yards down the road from where junketing Uefa officials have been on the offensive all week against the prospect of such a football revolution that might produce a league of similar soulless contests.

A travesty of an occasion was only raised to a level approaching acceptability by a distinguished display from the commanding Marseilles-born defender Franck Leboeuf, evidently relishing his return to the climate of the South of France. There was also the introduction of Brian Laudrup for the first time since his arrival from Rangers for the faithful to appreciate. But otherwise it was more of an exhibition of persuasive supporting evidence against any tournament, league or cup that does not possess that essential naked edge of competitiveness.

When Marcel Desailly, deployed by Vialli in midfield, afterwards declined to offer an opinion on the proceedings, claiming "My English is not so good", it was presumably a diplomatic withdrawal because he simply had nothing positive to contribute. Indeed, the Real coach, Guus Hiddink, gave the game away completely when he declared: "For my team it was not a problem, winning or losing."

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a European league. It will happen in some form, but it is unlikely to be in "private" hands. Those who have shown their own hand containing plans for a league based on prestige and wealth of its founding members might do well to reflect on the indifference shown to this particular contrived encounter. However much you connive, the fans need convincing. At the Stade Louis II they were not persuaded. Across Europe, they are not.

"Un reve: une realite", they say of Monaco, and the proponents of a super league genuinely believe one can become the other, merely by raising the stakes with easy talk of easy money, sufficient to break the bank at the casino here. Perhaps by selecting the principality, where everything about value is put in perspective, as a suitable venue from which to launch their counter-offensive, Uefa got it right. Only in the case of Monaco is it possible to have both a dream and a reality.