The Russian in the wings of a revolution

Euro 2004 play-offs: Chelsea's unlikely recruit answers call of country before returning to Pompey apprenticeship
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The Independent Football

The one word Chelsea fans have gradually learned to remove from their lexicon is surprise. Eyebrows took a serious pounding in the first few weeks after Roman Abramovich's summer arrival, but multi-million pound signings are now an accepted feature of the club's new-found status. Yet one particular purchase still perplexes. Not the £15m gamble on Juan Seba Veron nor the £16.8m paid to Real Madrid for the 31-year-old Claude Makelele, but the low-key £3.5m transfer of Alexei Smertin.

The midfielder's arrival from Bordeaux has raised numerous questions. Why, supporters wonder, is Chelsea's one and only Russian recruit not an integral part of the current revolution? Why have the richest club in Europe bought someone who few had heard of before? And is it just a coincidence that player and chairman share the same nationality?

Smertin is amused by the suspicions. "I think people have been watching too many old movies about spies and stuff," the defensive midfielder jokes. "There is nothing dodgy about my move to England. I am here because I, and Chelsea, want me to be here. It's really that simple." So why, then, is he currently plying his trade in Portsmouth?

The 28-year-old says that while his switch to Chelsea and almost immediate loaning out to Portsmouth may look bizarre, the arrangement is logical for all concerned. "It is good for Chelsea because they have so many new players trying to find their feet," he says as we settle down for a bowl of borsch, a traditional Russian soup that his wife has prepared, "and it is good for me because it allows me the time to adapt to the country and the style of football. I think that after a year with Portsmouth I will be ready for the challenges at Chelsea."

Smertin adds: "Very few Russians have ever played, let alone succeeded, in England, so it is sensible not to rush. By coming to Portsmouth for 12 months, I am learning the Premiership trade and, most importantly of all, playing on a weekly basis." Well, almost. Smertin has been injured for the last three weeks, having limped out of Portsmouth's home game against Charlton with what turned out to be a damaged cartilage in a knee. Early indications suggested that the injury would keep him out until December, but he has resumed light training and left for Moscow on Friday.

No, he has not been banished there by Harry Redknapp, but is in fact preparing for the Euro 2004 play-off against Wales. The first leg is on Saturday, with the return game four days later at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Smertin is desperate to be fit. "These are the two most important matches in Russia's recent history," the international captain says. "We want to prove ourselves as a nation and that's why the chance of playing in those games is spurring me on to make a quick recovery."

Perhaps it is no surprise that Smertin, who is often referred to as Marathon Man, should be a fierce competitor. "I hear that Wales feel they got a good draw," he says. "Well, it's funny, because that's how we feel too. I'm very optimistic, so I guess one of the two sides will look silly after the two ties."

On meeting him, it is clear that Smertin is far too kind and straightforward a man to be hiding any dark secrets. It says much about his openness and generosity that he invited this journalist for a traditional Russian lunch at his Port Solent flat the day after his eighth wedding anniversary. Conspiracy theorists would love there to be a sinister explanation for the Russian's arrival, but perhaps we should accept that there is not one. "I think that part of the confusion has come from the fact that I was supposed to be going back to Russia, but then suddenly came to England."

Smertin is referring to events in July, when Alexander Mamut, the head of Troika Dialog Group and a close business ally of Abramovich, began talks to take over Torpedo Moscow. He wanted to sign Smertin and build a new team around him. But Mamut's talks with Torpedo broke down, leaving Smertin in limbo. Enter Abramovich to get both the player and Mamut out of an awkward spot. "There is no question that Roman helped me," Smertin says, "but he did not just buy me to get me out of France at all costs. Claudio Ranieri [the manager of Chelsea] also liked me as a player and was part of the negotiations that brought me here."

Still, the Russian connection must have played its part. "Of course," Smertin admits, "because Roman had watched me play and wanted me to join his club. But that is not strange. Many chairmen suggest players to their managers."

So has Smertin seen Abramovich since he moved to England? "Yes, several times," he says. "Whenever I go up to London, we try to meet for lunch or just to catch up. I did not know him at all before my transfer to Chelsea, but now that we are two Russians in England we have lots more in common. We always have loads to talk about."

Smertin may be enjoying his English experiences but insists that he will return home when his playing days are over. "A lot of people are desperate to stay away once they have tasted life outside," explains Smertin, who was born in the southern Siberian town of Barnaul and learned to play the game on compacted snow, "but I love my country. I look forward to going back, showing my son what life is like in the homeland, and then maybe taking my coaching badges or setting up a football academy for kids. My ultimate ambition is to make Russia just as exciting a place for football as western Europe."

In the meantime, Smertin has a playing career to focus on. Leaving Bordeaux, a city rich in culture and gastronomy, was difficult, but the Premiership is everything the Russian had hoped for. "Bordeaux had wonderful food and architecture," he says, "but Portsmouth offers fantastic football. What I love most about the Premiership is that it roots out the cheats. It's a League where no one can hide. In France, you could sit back a bit or duck out of a challenge, but here you have to give your all for 90 minutes."

He adds: "And I'm not afraid of a battle myself. The English game is so competitive and that's why I love it here. I have always felt very much like a gypsy, so moving from country to country is something I cherish. England is a real adventure." One, Smertin hopes, that really will finish with Chelsea.