Schadenfreude is a football fan’s great pleasure. When some stroke of bad luck falls to a local rival or – even better – they deliberately cock things up, this pleasure tends to multiply. But today, as news breaks of Roberto di Matteo’s dismissal, it’s mightily difficult to rouse that old familiar sense of glee. Even for an Arsenal fan who has to try extra-hard because he lives in blue West London.
No question, Chelsea’s 3-0 loss against Juventus last night was insipid. It follows on a poor spell that has seen the Blues fail to win any of their last four Premier League Games and slip four points behind Manchester City. Adding to the gloom, the wind has changed direction for misfiring £50 million striker Fernando Torres who has, it seems, both been lumped with a permanent pout and developed an inability to score unless an opposition goalkeeper actually kicks the ball against his leg and into the net. But all this amounts to is that well-known footballing phenomenon of “the blip”.
Every team experiences blips. Sir Alex Ferguson practically invented them, and has become a master at using their arrival as motivation - typically catapulting his team up the league in the immediate aftermath. Champions Manchester City went through a seismic blip towards the end of last season. Arsenal exist in a state of semi-continuous blippery in which nothing ever changes and to which the only appropriate response is zen-like acceptance. Fact: you don’t sack people for blips.
But there are reasons beyond football that make Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich’s sudden loss of patience look especially cruel. Roberto Di Matteo seems, as the Italians (might?) say, “molto simpatico”. He’s a likeable man. Still fresh in the job, he admitted that taking a place in the Stamford Bridge dugout was “the biggest challenge of my life”. The previous manager Andre Villas-Boas, on the other hand, gave the impression that he took the job with about the same enthusiasm as one sits on a pissy toilet seat in a public lavatory.
That Di Matteo then proceeded to knock everyone’s expectations aside and win the Champions League was one of football’s more heart-warming stories. Humble guy (and pin-up to those of us who shave heads to avoid impending baldness) destroys the competition. I sneaked out of a wedding to watch the final, and the sight of Roberto being lobbed into the air by his jubilant team lifted my own disappointment that this would not be another night of delectable (footballing) schadenfreude.
Of course, chairmen’s memories are short-lived. And Abramovich apparently possesses both the memory and patience of a hyperactive goldfish. But after the Russian lavished what many thought of as excessive patience on the blundering AVB, surely he could have allowed the far superior Di Matteo a bit more time to sort things out?
Perhaps that’s naïve. Perhaps we’re missing something. Perhaps Pep Guardiola is already trying on his Chelsea tracksuit. Whatever it is that lies behind Di Matteo’s dismissal, though, it isn’t footballing sense, it isn’t managerial sense, and it is making me sad. All that remains to be said is “Ciao bello” – Roberto, you deserved better.