One day last summer, while cruising the Mediterranean in one of his yachts, the billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, decided to whizz ashore to take a look at the Forte Village, the chic, self-contained holiday resort in southern Sardinia that was established by the hotelier Charles Forte in 1970 and has grown like Topsy ever since.
Abramovich already knew that the Forte Village was geared up for football, with a full-size grass pitch and another on astroturf, and was perhaps also aware that some of Europe's leading clubs use it for what is bewilderingly known as pre-pre-season, that period when footballers shrug off the summer sloth before training starts in earnest. The Inter Milan team have been regulars these past few years, and Sven-Goran Eriksson took his England players before Euro 2004; indeed, staff were rather alarmed by the competitive intensity of David Beckham and Wayne Rooney on the karting track.
But the resort's footballing pedigree goes further back than that, to the summer soccer camp run years ago by Sardinia's favourite footballing son, the legendary Cagliari and Italy striker Luigi Riva. Impressed with this heritage and thrilled by a hard-fought match between employees from his yacht and the Forte staff, Abramovich suggested to Lorenzo Giannuzzi, the managing director of the Forte Village and a football nut himself, that the resort and Chelsea might go into partnership. And Signor Giannuzzi did not get where he is today by overlooking suggestions from billionaires.
Thus it was that my footballing sons, Joe (13) and Jacob (nine) – accompanied by a dedicated back-room entourage in the form of their 14-year-old sister Eleanor, their mother and me – arrived in May half-term for the inaugural week of the new Chelsea-operated Soccer School at Forte Village. The boys, in truth, were a little anxious. Would it be hard work? Would they be good enough? But all their apprehension evaporated the second our taxi pulled up outside reception, when they were rapturously greeted, by name, by Michael Cole, the London football development manager for Chelsea, and a man whose irrepressible bonhomie showed no signs of flagging from that moment until the end of the week.
At the first session, Michael selected three captains and gave them each alternate picks from the 18 boys left. I have to fight a nervous twitch when I watch that sort of thing: it spirits me back to games on the local recreation ground when my friend Nige Evans and I were habitually the last two to be chosen, both trying desperately to look as though we didn't care desperately.
Happily, my sons rarely suffer the same humiliation and besides, Joe was one of the three captains, each of whom was invited to choose a Champions' League team. A mini-tournament duly unfolded between Liverpool, Barcelona and AC Milan, into which Michael injected thrilling authenticity by having one team file past the other at the start of each match, solemnly shaking hands. He also shouted, "Goooooooaaal!" when a goal was scored, and generally made the boys feel as if they were taking part in the real Champions League, an illusion only slightly dented when the mother of the AC Milan goalkeeper pulled him off the field to apply some factor-50 sun lotion.
While all this was going on with the bigger boys, those aged eight and below were on an adjacent pitch in the charge of one of Chelsea's community coaches, a beguilingly sunny 18-year-old called Mohammed Mohammed, conveniently known as Mo. He had come through the club's community coaching programme himself, in the badlands of west London, but if the thought ever crossed Mo's mind that these Forte Village kids were somewhat more privileged than their counterparts on the council estates of Acton and Shepherd's Bush, he never let it show.
Overseeing the operation was Shaun Gore, once a central defender with Fulham, now Chelsea's director of football in the community. Shaun told me that the club now has soccer schools all over the world, part of Abramovich's stated objective to make Chelsea the planet's "number one" club by 2014. Certainly, although a majority of the boys taking part (there were no girls, but I was assured that they are not discouraged) supported clubs other than Chelsea, my own staunchly Evertonian sons included, it was easy to see how any waverers might have their heads turned, with Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack smiling down from huge banners, and Chelsea goodie bags dished out – at a price – at the end of the week.
Moreover, Chelsea staff now get to see 500,000 children a year playing football. "If we can find the next John Terry as well as encouraging future generations of supporters, so much the better," said Gore, applauding loudly as a diminutive Leicester City fan picked his way through the Barcelona defence. "Not a bad little player, him."
Proper matches dominated the programme, which was sensible, because all kids prefer playing to being coached. But Michael was quick to issue advice from the sidelines, and when he did hold coaching sessions, they were excellent. One routine, a variation on that old back-garden staple, "What's the time, Mr Wolf?", had a series of boys trying to dribble a ball towards another boy with his back to them. If he turned to find the ball too far away from their feet, or with their heads down, they were out. After all, the best footballers – and there is no better example than Ballack – play with their heads up, looking for passing and scoring opportunities.
I tried to keep this in mind when I joined the dads' game that took place at 6pm every day. Shaun had warned me that these games were brutally competitive, and so it proved – indeed it took me all of five minutes to strain a knee muscle, whereupon I took over as goalie. Not that keeping goal was a soft option, with a succession of blistering shots unleashed by middle-aged men who keep their six-packs in the fridge these days, not under their shirts, but who were determined to flaunt their footballing credentials just in case the Chelsea coaches were still watching.
The most skilful of the dads was a paunchy bloke from Sussex called Ken, but Signor Giannuzzi told me that when some Italian dads took on some English dads a few years ago, team A included the great Italian striker Roberto Baggio and his ertswhile teammate Massimo Ambrosini, while team B featured Ian Wright, Paul Ince and Steve McManaman, former England players all. It might have been Baggio bearing down on me, not Ken from Sussex.
Our fellow guests over half-term included professional footballers Roy Carroll and Michael Duberry, and the prop forward's prop forward, former rugby union star Jason Leonard, whose beach towel nobody showed the slightest inclination to steal. The Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, is another regular. Some friends of ours spotted him at breakfast a few years ago, and noticed others in the room very discreetly looking his way, until the discretion was pierced by their seven-year-old son, who suddenly announced in a very loud, very shrill voice, "Hey, there's Arsène Wenger!"
The thassalotherapy spa sorted out my knee, which was just as well, because I wanted to play tennis as well as football with my newfound mates. That was the best thing of all about the soccer school: it was an instant ice-breaker for dads as well as children, especially given the preponderance of Brits, who traditionally wait until the evening before the return flight before making friends. Also, it kept our sons diverted for hours on end, enabling us to enjoy long lunches in the Sardinian sun, savouring the superb food and marvelling at the English translations on the menu, one of which was "veal fillet in a jacket of lard". Had it not been for the sport, I would have known exactly how it felt.
The writer travelled with Sovereign Luxury Holidays (0871 664 0227; www.sovereign.com), which offers one week at Forte Village from £3,705 for a family of three. The price includes return flights from Gatwick, private transfers, half board accommodation and 24-hour Sovereign Concierge service. One week's football coaching with the Chelsea FC coaches costs an additional €250 (£208) per child.
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Forte Village Resort, Santa Margherita, Sardinia (00 39 070 921 516; www.fortevillageresort.com ).
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