James Lawton: Chelsea must pay for believing they are rich enough to make up their own rules
Saturday 05 September 2009
It was as certain as the dawn on Fulham Road yesterday that a small army of international sports lawyers, including one who sits on the Court of Arbitration for Sport, would line up to tell us that Chelsea will be spared the full weight of Fifa's decision to ban them from the transfer market until January, 2011.
But what if this isn't so? What if Chelsea have to live off their accumulated strength and wisdom into the middle of next season?
The best bet it seems is that they will have their sentence reduced to one transfer window, as was the case when Roma appealed against a similar ban in 2004 and it is the hope of Swiss club FC Sion as they fight the consequences of their nicking of an Egyptian goalkeeper.
However, let's put the morality, which is generally the first casualty in such episodes, and the legalities to one side for a moment and imagine that the opulently heeled briefs are indeed wrong.
Just let's guess at the reaction of a club which has been able to operate, at least before Manchester City became drenched with their own deluge of oil money, on the premise that they could on a whim outspend any rival on earth and that, to recall the charming phrase of chief executive Peter Kenyon, they were engaged in a league race involving a "bunch of one."
No, this shouldn't be some exercise in gloating by the have-nots or still less the have-not-been-caughts but more a glimpse into an imaginary world where a club like Chelsea, for a little while at least, are asked to perform on something other than the built-in strength provided by the vast wealth of their patron Roman Abramovich.
Something, for example, like pure, seat-of-the-pants football knowledge, an ability to make the best of available resources without the constant reassurance that if necessary massively expensive reinforcements are at most a few months away.
The idea is not so outlandish because until quite recently Kenyon, while acknowledging the huge impetus provided by Abramovich's investment, and losses which would have brought down most of their rivals, was talking freely about the club's sure-footed march to self-sufficiency. He said he saw a time when the future was guaranteed not by the oligarch endlessly dipping into his pocket but by the brilliant installation of an infrastructure guaranteed to produce seamless waves of outstanding young players.
So far this master-plan apparently amounts to not much more than reliance on an almost exclusively purchased, powerful but ageing squad and the assumption that they could go along to a place like Lens in the old coalfields of northern France and steal the most dazzling product of the local club's youth programme.
Whatever happens to Chelsea's appeal, the club have now been massively inconvenienced by the consequence of their belief that if you are rich enough you can make your own rules.
Lens, it is impossible not to believe, were as much exercised by Chelsea's arrogance as their stark acquisitiveness.
Chelsea are of course not alone in their liking for the fruits of the success of other clubs in bringing on superb young talent. Le Havre are complaining fiercely about Manchester United's signing of the France Under-16 captain Paul Pogba and Lazio are still bitter about the Old Trafford club's exploitation of Italian registration regulations in the signing of striker Federico Macheda.
Barcelona also appear to have taken a blood oath that they will one day regain the talent that was lost to them when Arsenal spirited away Cesc Fabregas. No, Chelsea are not unique in their tactics but they have been especially flagrant in their prosecution, not least in their approach to the signing of Ashley Cole.
Nor can there be much doubt that after his frustrations at Milan the new coach Carlo Ancelotti was particularly attracted to Chelsea by the assumption that he would have the capacity to strengthen his team whenever he deemed it necessary.
What better guarantee could there be of the concentrated minds of his inherited squad of great talent and experience but dwindling years and, without challenge, perhaps slipping motivation?
Now Ancelotti has to juggle with another kind of challenge. With at least one transfer window presumably closed, he has to nurture his key players with special care, especially if, as seems likely, he cannot be so sure of the quality of those who from time to time will have to act as replacements. It means quite simply that a massive advantage has been taken away from the most powerful of clubs and when we consider the implications of this we are surely bound to step easily into another question.
It asks how much better it would be for the competitive health of the game if there was a limit, natural and not imposed as a penalty for wrongdoing, to those occasions when the richest clubs could go into the market and effortlessly increase their advantage over their rivals?
In North America, which knows quite a lot about the required checks and balances of professional sports competition, the question would of course be considered an absolute no-brainer. It is why the bottom club in the NFL are always granted first pick in the annual draft of new players, which is a guarantee of acquiring either brilliant talent or the right to negotiate wider team strengthening with the best young player in the game as the bargaining counter.
No doubt such a concept defies belief in the "bunch of one" culture at Stamford Bridge, but then circumstances may just grant a little insight into how it works. The idea is that limits are imposed on the advantages of the strong and it comes from an understanding, not conspicuous in the deliberations of the lawyers yesterday, that sport will always be imperiled when there is no attempt to preserve a competitive balance, when winning in football is equated with success in business, where weaker rivals sooner or later go to the wall.
However long the Fifa transfer ban limits Chelsea they are not likely to suffer such a fate, at least as long as the patronage of Abramovich holds. Who knows, it might just make them a better, more resourceful club – and Ancelotti may indeed revel in the great challenge of his career.
In the meantime, the hope that football is at last seriously examining the way it conducts its business will not suffer from the possibility of the richest team in the world being required to play, just for a while, on a pitch that does not inevitably slope in their favour.
This might just also encourage that idea that maybe everyone, the rich and the poor, the good and bad, should operate on such a playing field for one calendar year. It would challenge every club, every coach – and shut down one window of opportunity which exists, in reality, almost exclusively for the rich and, let's face it, the unscrupulous.
Fallon's genius makes further feats possible
Kieren Fallon's return to racing at Lingfield yesterday afternoon came with the defiant claim that he will rise above all the betrayals a fragile nature has imposed upon a superlative talent and so of course we are fascinated to see if he can fulfill his prophecy that he will win still another champion jockey title.
Given his antecedents, Fallon will surely forgive a high level of scepticism but in an excellent, and perfectly timed biography ( Fallon, Racing Post Books, £18.99), author Andrew Longmore makes the unanswerable point that some men are uniquely equipped to make anything seem possible.
Lester Piggott, the greatest jockey of them all, came back to the saddle at the age of 55 in 1990, after a year in prison for tax evasion and two years of retirement, to win his 30th classic as well as a Breeder's Cup title.
There is, of course, no greater redeeming force than the imperatives of genius, something which at 44 Fallon has probably not yet managed to ransack.
Bilic cannot prevent diving Eduardo's fall
Slaven Bilic, coach of Croatia, is a most engaging fellow and a football man of great talent.
But then if you were to go into every byway of the game it is hard to believe you could have found this week a more unsuitable witness for the defence of his international player Eduardo da Silva.
Those of us who believe that Eduardo was indeed guilty of an egregious dive can say only one thing in his defence. It was not as bad, or appalling in its consequences, as the one committed by Bilic in the semi-final of the World Cup 11 years ago. He fell to the ground feigning injury quite grotesquely. Laurent Blanc, who had played so marvellously for France, was denied a place in the World Cup final. The judgment, surely m'lud, is that this witness should stand down.
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