Just when you think the game has reached its lowest ebb, with hordes of footballers apparently interested in little else but going out on the town be-
fore exchanging unsavoury notes about their numerous conquests, along comes a player who is just as young, rich and talented, yet completely breaks the mould. Sadly, Adrian Mutu is not an Englishman, but the mere fact that he plies his trade on these shores will do for now.
At first sight, the Chelsea striker looks like any other wealthy 24-year-old Premiership footballer. He loves fashion, jewellery and nice cars. Delve a little deeper, though, and an altogether more profound picture emerges. Unlike many of the current homegrown players, who perform with Dr Jekyll professionalism during the day and then behave like hideous Mr Hydes at night, Mutu is a far more attractive man of many disguises.
Scoring goals - something that he has achieved with ease and regularity throughout his career - is just one of Mutu's many talents. He proved that again on Wednesday when he netted Chelsea's all-important winner in their Champions' League match with Lazio at Stamford Bridge. A close second is any one of his passions for law, mathematics, poetry, acting, and history. "I guess I am the ultimate split personality," he jokes. "I love football, first and foremost, but if I wasn't in this job I would be more than happy doing all the others."
In many ways, he does. While some of his contemporaries spend their spare time on Playstation or partying, Mutu is studying for the final year of his law degree. "It is just a topic that I have always been interested in," the £15.8m signing says modestly, in the same way another player might talk about soul music or designer clothes. "I guess I like to keep my mind stimulated, and there can be no better exercise than law. It is difficult with the football taking up so much of my time, but I hope to graduate next summer from my university in Romania.
"After that, who knows? I don't know whether I'll eventually go into the profession, but either way it's a good tool to have at your disposal."
Footballers with extracurricular hobbies are nothing new, but one with such a variety is. Rarer still are those who do not feel the need to tell the world about their abilities. Mutu has no interest in talking about seagulls or trawlers. It is not that he is embarrassed, but rather that he does not have the arrogance to presume everyone will be fascinated by his passions, too. In short, Mutu is that rarest of animals: a humble footballer.
The Romanian is the first to admit that much of the credit for his development must go to his parents. Mum, Rodica, and dad, Spiridon, are both computer programmers who have their feet planted firmly on the ground. "They never tried to stop me fulfilling my dreams," Mutu Jnr says, "but they always kept me in touch with reality." Evenings in the Mutu household were usually spent trying to work out complicated mathematical puzzles around the table. "It was great," Mutu recalls. "My sister Laura now studies maths in Romania at university, and I would have loved to have done that, but football got in the way. You never know, though, I might go back to it one day."
When pushed, the Romanian will discuss almost any subject at length. One topic, though, remains totally out of bounds. His three-year marriage to a famous TV presenter back home, Alexandra, has just fallen apart amid rumours of infidelity on both parts, and Mutu will not talk about the matter. Suffice to say that the pair, who were known as the Posh and Becks of Romania, are locked in bitter divorce proceedings, including a battle for custody of their son.
As we speak, following Wednesday's 2-1 win that puts Chelsea back on track for qualification for the knockout stages of the lucrative Champions' League, Mutu is subdued yet reflective - almost suspicious. He speaks quietly and thoughtfully. "This is the way Adrian is," the Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri, says. "And he plays like this, too. You never hear him shouting or complaining. He just gets on with things. That's why when Mr Abramovich asked me to draw up a list of the players I wanted, I put Mutu right at the top."
On the field, Mutu reminds one of a clever spy who remains unnoticed for long periods before suddenly springing into action at the appropriate time. His winning goal against Lazio was typical of the man who found the net 17 times for Parma in Serie A last season. He had been relatively quiet for an hour, and yet put away his one chance of the game. "Adrian is a natural poacher," explains an enthusiastic Ranieri, who first tried to secure his signature in January. "When he sniffs an opening, he takes it. Right foot, left foot; it does not matter to him."
Ranieri, who has been a fan ever since the Romanian went to Italy three seasons ago and then shone at Euro 2000, says the reason why he is so excited is because Mutu is "a raw talent who I think I can help make very good". "Adrian is not a top, top striker," Ranieri says. "Not yet, because he is still young and has a lot to learn. But he has all the attributes to become one of the best ever."
The striker's team-mates agree. "Adrian is so sharp, he reminds me of Michael Owen," Joe Cole suggests. "From what I've seen he is already a great player, who is going to get even better. He has the pace and acceleration no defender wants to play against." The Dutch international defender Mario Melchiot even goes so far as to say that Mutu is the club's best summer buy. "For me, Adrian has had the most special start. He looks such a clever player. He is only young, but on the pitch he acts like a man. Nothing fazes him."
Mutu's greatest strength is obviously his scoring ability, but what makes him stand out from other strikers is his raw desire. No matter that he is a relatively small man, known for his skill and deft touches, Mutu is no pushover. One of the main reasons why the Chelsea faithful have warmed to him so quickly is that he has that Mark Hughes-like quality of fighting for every ball. That, and the fact he scored on his debut and then produced a double against London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. "What I like most about him is his toughness," Ranieri says. "When my players lose the ball, they must show hunger to get it back. Adrian has this spirit."
Clearly flattered by the remarks, Mutu admits that he enjoys a challenge. "Unfortunately," he says, "my physique is not exactly helpful for this tough game. Every week in England I face a big back line, but it's not as if I wasn't warned. Dan Petrescu [once of Chelsea himself] told me the Premiership was very physical, and he was right. But don't worry, because I don't scare easily."
Mutu is determined to succeed because nothing has come easily to him. Growing up in Pitesti, he spent much of his childhood reading books of poetry by Mihail Eminescu, all the while dreaming of one day emulating his hero, the great Gheorghe Hagi. "Written words are very important to me," says Mutu, who has no fewer than seven tattoos. "Use them well and they will break down any walls; use them poorly and they will create insurmountable barriers. I really believe that."
Having made his name in Romania, Mutu must have thought he was on his way to glory when Internazionale paid Dinamo Bucharest £1.4m for his services in January 2000. However, dislodging Ronaldo, Roberto Baggio and Christian Vieri proved impossible, so he was sold on to Verona six months later for the ludicrous sum of £350,000. Inter's loss was Verona's gain, and it was there, under the astute tutelage of Alberto Malesani, that Mutu found his feet.
"He played me in the right position on the pitch, on the left just behind the striker, and made me feel good about myself and my game," Mutu recalls. "He was the first Italian manager to really understand me."
Ranieri is the second. "The rotation policy can be difficult," Mutu admits, "but as the days go on, all the Chelsea players are developing stronger bonds. I would say this team are definitely good enough to battle Manchester United and Arsenal for the championship."
Mutu was not quite 11 when the former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, were tried by a kangaroo court and then shot after the collapse of communism. The event marked him profoundly, so much so that he considered switching careers when he was offered the chance to play the teenaged Ceausescu in a film about the dictator. "I was very tempted," he says, "but it would have been unworkable with my football commitments. Also, if I am being honest, I think I would prefer to do theatre work, because of the closer relationship with the audience."
Judging by the ovation he received from 40,000 Chelsea devotees when he came off on Wednesday, Mutu has already found the perfect stage to express his talents.
Biography: Adrian Mutu
Born: 8 January 1979 in Pitesti.
International career: Romania (11 matches, 5 goals).
Club career: Arges Pitesti (1996-99; played 48 matches, 14 goals). Dinamo Bucharest (1999-2000; 18 matches, 18 goals). Internazionale (Jan-Aug 2000; 3 matches). Verona (2000-02; 52 matches, 16 goals). Parma (2002-03, 31 matches 17 goals). Chelsea (2003-present; 10 matches, 5 goals).
Transfers: Dinamo Bucharest to Inter (£1.4m); Inter to Verona (£350,000); Verona to Parma (£6m); Parma to Chelsea (£15.8m).
Predatory instincts: "Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is like a shark, Carlton is Cole like a lion, Adrian Mutu is like a snake." - Claudio Ranieri, Aug 2003.