James Lawton: What does Abramovich want to create, a great club or a shirt-selling pariah outfit?

How long can he take seriously claims that the reaction is born of simple envy?
Click to follow

Surely it is now time for Roman Abramovich to stand up and tell both the Chelsea supporters and the wider football world what he really wants from the club which has risen out of his vast wealth.

It has to be more than he is currently receiving. It has to be more than functional football and some relentless statement about the gap that money inevitably creates between the strong and the weak. It has to be more than a hostile tide of disbelief that winning football matches needs to be accompanied by such massive shortfalls in style and grace.

Does he want to read about civil war between his manager, Jose Mourinho, and chief executive and souvenir shirt salesman, Peter Kenyon, and if the coach goes, is Sven Goran Eriksson the man to impose the kind of style and discipline that might prevent Didier Drogba shrugging his shoulders over the fact that his name has become a synonym for cheating? One issue between Kenyon and Mourinho is said to be the possible signing of David Beckham - and if this is so it is one which should exercise Abramovich in the keenest thought on that basic issue of the direction Chelsea should take.

He must decide if he wants to reduce the club's dependency on his resources, and acquire in Beckham the celebrity footballer of the ages who will no doubt boost the merchandising action. Or does he want a real football club which has one clear imperative: excellence on the field? Abramovich is not such a football innocent that he can have missed the effect on Real Madrid of the galactico policy. Beckham, Real's sales department breathlessly boast, carried the club to the top spot in the world shirt sales league. But, in three years, he hasn't got within touching distance of any kind of winner's medal. Mourinho would be negligent of his duties if he didn't hammer home that point.

The truth is that Abramovich has a dizzying number of questions to answer. How bitter is he that in two attempts now his hugely resourced team have been ushered into the margins of the European action? Is he content with two straight Premiership titles while remaining in the slipstream of European giants like Barcelona and Juventus and how much angst will he feel tonight when Arsenal, a team apparently squashed by the weight of his investment in Stamford Bridge, play on in the club tournament that matters most of all? How pleased can he be that his team, for all their efficiency, command such little affection, and still less respect in his adopted football nation? Even at the height of their powers, Manchester United, the team the rest of the nation resented most of all, never incurred the kind of disdain which is being heaped on the current champions.

How long can he take seriously claims that the reaction is born of simple envy? Such an atmosphere surrounding his team is certainly doing nothing for his prestige. Football is supposed to enhance the visibility and the aura of those who make huge amounts of money in the dusty corridors of commerce. It certainly gave Sir Alan Sugar a public platform, as well as a nice little multimillion pound profit, and now, for reasons which may be beyond those who do not naturally warm to loutish televised bullying, he luxuriates in the status of TV personality.

Abramovich does not seem to crave such public recognition; at least he hasn't done thus far, being content with the display of an enigmatic smile at Chelsea's moments of greatest triumph. But then it is reasonable to presume that he wants more for his pots of roubles than patronage of what is becoming England's pariah team.

Nearly two years ago this scarcely seemed the battle plan when Abramovich sailed his two massive luxury yachts into Lisbon - one for his battalion of guests, the other for the service staff. He arrived on the Tagus waterfront as the new tsar of European football. He had acquired a new coach, the best in Europe it was said, and now he was going to run his eyes over the choicest talent on the Continent. A fleet of hired Mercedes waited at dockside to ferry his guests and scouts back and forth, the whole apparatus of supreme achievement in the great cultural circus of football.

That was the daunting image. The reality now sits less comfortably on the shoulders of the oligarch.

The other day Mourinho was seen angrily ripping up his tactical match notes. The implication was clear enough. His players had been less than their game plan. Another worry may be that Abramovich any time now might make a similar conclusion about his vastly paid hierarchy and support staff at Stamford Bridge.

Waring about Beckham certainly seems like a bizarre irrelevance to that central question that must now be haunting him. In Lisbon for a few weeks he was, it seemed, the emperor of football. Now he must wonder, like a common man, if he is getting value for money.

If diving does not spell the death of football the hypocrisy of managers will

Didier Drogba admits that he cheated when he handled the ball, and that no one would worry about it if, say, he played for Manchester City. Alan Stubbs, the veteran Everton defender, accuses Liverpool's foreign players of being among the worst deceivers of referees in the game.

Sam Allardyce, a candidate for England's vacant coaching job, was seen to shake hands and congratulate one of his players, El Hadji Diouf when he converted a penalty after conning a referee. The manager said that he would react differently only when his rivals did so.

Richer than anything, though, is the recent declaration of Arsène Wenger that war must be waged on the divers. Wenger, no one would dispute, has been a glory of English football in the quality he has produced out on the field, and tonight his young and brilliantly promising team carry hope against Juventus that runs wider than the committed legion of Highbury. But when Wenger speaks out against diving he should first look at himself - and his own record.

He railed against Wayne Rooney when he won a questionable penalty in that infamous "Pizzagate" game at Old Trafford, but he was less eloquent when earlier his own Robert Pires committed a dive, against Portsmouth in the middle of Arsenal's glorious unbeaten run in the Premiership. In fact, Wenger said it was a matter for the referee. At the time one old pro said that Pires' action was not just bad, it was the most elaborate dive he had ever seen as it required an outstretched leg from the Arsenal player in order to make contact with the defender.

That was a perfect opportunity for Wenger to make his stand. He could have said that such behaviour, from wherever it came, could in the end mean the death of football as a respected public entertainment. Instead, like so many self-interested managers and players, he held his counsel.

The result is becoming more scandalous by the week. What can be done? Nothing short of a wholesale realisation that cheating, and the dreadful grappling that is now routine in the penalty area and which is so sickening to great old players they can scarcely bear to watch the modern game, is bringing about the game's biggest crisis. It is a crisis of affection, of enjoyment, of truth.

In his indignation Stubbs said: "I got booked, as Kewell did, for holding my ground in the box. It was petty and pathetic and it has ruined the game." No pause to reflect on the fact that Stubbs was grappling the player from behind, that it is a curse which has deeply disfigured the old duel of speed and skill between defender and attacker.

But Stubbs does what everyone in football do. He shifts the focus in another direction. Meanwhile, referees are hopelessly confused.

They need help, and part of it would come in a reduction of their god-like status by increased use of video evidence. The absurd rule that action cannot be taken if a referee believes he has seen an incident and takes action, however wrong or inadequate, needs to be scrapped immediately. The Professional Footballers' Association and the League Managers Association must meet their responsibilities to the game. So must the Premiership and the Football Association. They could best do this by calling an emergency summit meeting with just one item on the agenda. It would be concerned solely with restoring a little decency in the national game.

Given the way almost everyone in football is currently behaving, there probably wouldn't be much point in appealing to better instincts; much better to point out that as it is going the game, as a viable public entertainment, could be dead inside 10 years.