The Chelsea Fairy Tale Becomes Remarkable Reality

By Paul Gardner

Chelsea, I'd say, has written its own rules for what it takes to win a tournament. Or what it took to win this season's Champions League.

We’ve always known that it isn’t necessarily the “best” team that wins, but this was amazing. Chelsea was not only not the best team in the final, it was not the “best” team in most of its preceding matchups.

Barely surviving at Valencia, played off the field at Stamford Bridge by Benfica, drubbed by Napoli in Naples, outclassed in both legs by Barcelona ... yet Chelsea survived, always by its fingertips, and with a fair amount of luck.

None of which is to be belittled. You’re going to need luck, anyway. Chelsea got it again on Saturday, in a final that it had looked destined to lose, as Bayern dominated the game with a growing sense of power and arrogance.

Then came the moment when I felt sure that Chelsea’s surreal progress in this competition had come to an end. It seemed, for certain, that the fates had turned viciously on Chelsea. Didier Drogba, the hero of the hour, scorer of an unlikely -- but brilliant --equalizer late in the game was singled out as the man to bear the punishment. Drogba it was who committed an incredibly stupid foul on Franck Ribery, one that wasn’t even worth arguing about. The resulting penalty kick looked certain to give Bayern back not only the lead, but its faltering swagger as well.

Arjen Robben’s kick was not a good one -- but it was hit with power. Petr Cech saved it, quick enough to almost smother the ball and reclaim it before the rebound could be reached by a Bayern player.

The luck I’m talking about was not Cech’s save, which was superb ... but the referee’s decision not to rule that the kick should be retaken. Looking back -- and even at the time -- it would have been the cruelest of decisions, at least as far as Chelsea is concerned. But there was flagrant encroachment at the kick. David Luiz had one foot inside the penalty area before Robben had even begun his run-up. By the time Robben struck the ball there were two Chelsea players and two from Bayern inside the area.

As is usual in these cases, no one was watching. Referee Pedro Proenca was looking at Robben, his assistant had his eyes glued on Cech. What the extra official was doing, I have no idea.

So Chelsea got away with one. No one complained, and in the end, that seemed right. An admission, almost, that some sort of enchantment had settled over Chelsea’s adventure. An adventure as unlikely and as unreal as any fairy story, but an adventure that, at that moment, moved from fairy tale to real life.

Poor Bayern! Can anyone doubt that the wicked Chelsea spirits had cast an evil spell over its strikers, reducing them to pathetic incompetence? How else to explain all those amateurishly inaccurate shots on goal?

TV commentator Gary Neville went on and on about it being “written” that Chelsea would claim the Cup, and that’s the way it seemed. But Neville’s later claim that this was due to Chelsea’s indomitable “English spirit” was pretty silly -- for a team with a Russian owner, a Swiss-Italian coach, and with only four Englishmen among the 13 players used.

Neville’s assertion is far more difficult to swallow than the notion of a fairy tale. I’ll go for the fairy tale. Not least because, from a strictly soccer point of view, Chelsea never did enough to deserve this triumph. Only very occasionally did it play outstanding soccer. That 4-1 comeback win against Napoli was the high point. After that the fairy story unfolded in a series of melodramatic chapters and Chelsea came through when everything seemed to say that it could not.

Yes, Benfica and Barcelona and Bayern, one after the other, will lament that they should have won, that they were better than Chelsea. So be it. Which is why I’m not calling Chelsea lucky. Not over five games, luck cannot be that consistent. An occasional moment, yes -- as in the encroachment decision -- but Chelsea was evidently propelled by something more reliable and, in the end, more likeable, than sheer luck.

As I don’t believe in things like fate and destiny, I’m quite happy to call it a fairy story -- some of which I do believe in. They end up happily, though usually with unlikely endings that really do strain your credibility. This one had its unreal ending, maybe the only one that it could have had, when it came down to the shootout, which is more cheap melodrama than fairy tale. Whatever, at least the Chelsea fans got their happy ending.

And fairy stories prove something that needs proving, that needs to be emphasized throughout life. That logic and planning and doing everything right is not necessarily the answer.

Mostly because we kid ourselves when we think we know what we’re doing. Most of the time, we don’t. Chelsea was not supposed to win this one because it is not that outstanding a team, and anyway it went into the final with four of its top players suspended. It hardly mattered. How could that be? English spirit? A ridiculous answer. Are we supposed to imagine that there is no such thing as German spirit, and that Bayern did not work as hard and play as hard as Chelsea? If there was a controlling spirit to the Chelsea adventure, it was not a soccer one. But it may have been the Brothers Grimm.

Most people, I suppose, will not accept the fairy tale. They have reason on their side, but I’m not claiming that fairy tales obey reason. The whole point about them is that they flout reason and logic, and the well-laid plans of the soccer bosses.

UEFA President Michel Platini may well be appalled at Chelsea’s win, because it flies in the face of what he is trying -- with immense logic -- to achieve in the field of soccer finances. It would have been a great coup for Platini to have Bayern win this final. Bayern shines as the outstanding example of fiscal stability among soccer’s free-spending rich clubs, a team that does better than any when it comes to nurturing homegrown talent, that does not get involved in what Platini and his fellow reformers see as “irresponsible” spending on star players.

So who wins? Why Chelsea, with its mega-spending sugar-daddy Roman Abramovic ... who has now proved, maybe, that you can spend your way to success that you can, in the phrase that seems to enrage the reformers, buy a championship.

Well, you can. Anyone who denies that is living the other half of the fairy-tale world, the Cinderella part where the downtrodden, hard-done-by character comes out on top. That’s nice, warm, comforting thinking, but it doesn’t apply in modern pro soccer. There are no downtrodden soccer clubs and there’s too much money around to imagine that it doesn’t matter.

I can make the case that Chelsea was able to triumph in the final because it has a much stronger bench than Bayern. Abramovic’s billions have allowed it to maintain virtually two top teams, one on the field, the other on the bench. There’s plenty of truth in that, but it’s not the whole story.

Because there is an inexplicable, almost enchanting element to Chelsea’s win. It’s not the classic fairy story of good and poor triumphing over bad and evil. But it has all the elements of the surreal, of an adventure that, as long as you’re reading it, convinces you that the natural order of things has been upset, and that something rare, unusual -- and, of course, good -- is going to happen.

Chelsea got its win and by the rules of the fairy tale world, they deserved it. I’ll go with that -- not least because I can find nothing in the real world that says Chelsea are undeserving Champion. Maybe Chelsea does not represent the triumph of Good -- that would be Platini’s opinion, no doubt -- but again, I beg to differ. In strictly modern, soccer terms I can see nothing evil about Chelsea.

And then ... when all the rationalizing and theorizing is over, the fact is that, over the past two months or so, Chelsea’s fairy tale has kept us involved and fascinated, elated and frustrated, in a way that no other Champions League campaign has ever done. Yes, I would rather Barcelona had won the thing, yes, I do believe that Barcelona should have beaten Chelsea. But Barca had its chance and muffed it. Ditto Bayern. End of argument. Chelsea is a worthy -- if rather eccentric -- champion.

The longer the fantasy went on, the more it became reality.

That was Chelsea’s ultimate -- and remarkable -- achievement, to take a fairy tale and give it a real life happy ending. Reality, of course, destroys fairy tales, and Chelsea will soon be back in real-time. Which won’t be easy.

15 comments about "The Chelsea Fairy Tale Becomes Remarkable Reality".
  1. Gak Foodsource, May 20, 2012 at 10:11 p.m.

    Paul, I don't think you needed to suggest an encroachment violation on Robben's penalty was the decisive example of luck. I'd have simply gone with the fact that both Bayern and Barca missed go-ahead penalties in the closing minutes of the final games. Or the fact that Chelsea had absolutely no offensive gameplan for how they could win the final against Bayern but still did. My takeaway is simply that soccer is a game in which the better team does not always win. And I am okay with that. It is part of the game.

  2. Carlos Thys, May 21, 2012 at 12:02 a.m.

    I have no idea what oligarch (translation: Corrupt-o-garch) Roman Abromovich is wasting all his tainted money on. Chelsea play "hope and prayer" defending with pluck football/soccer once more. Pound for pound (and I mean the currency), Chelsea probably has dished out nearly double the salary + bonuses per player per position vs. a squad like FC Bayern. And they need to defend? All game long? I had no idea that purely defensive players commanded such platinum-lined salary contract deals. The corner kick ratio was 20:1 for FC Bayern, correct? The telling moment of the whole match for me was the 117th minute as a ball went out of bounds for a Chelsea throw in on the Chelsea right side. If I could see a replay, I'd tell you the name of this Chelsea player, but the man had zero interest in swiftly or even at a moderate pace picking up the ball, throwing the ball in to perhaps create one more chance (How many had Chelsea created in the previous 116 minutes? You can count their "chances on goal" on one hand.) to win it outright in the extra time. But, no, no that was not and was never the Blues gameplan. Instead the Chelsea player just ambles over, completely disinterested in a throw in that will restart the play. I guess we now know why Chelsea were so feverishly practicing PKs the week prior. The entire Chelsea game plan was hold the scoreline at 0-0 and work it out to PKs at the end of 120 minutes. All that to say, that one must thorougly disagree; Chelsea's play was disgraceful. (This was not a decisively overmatched and unseasoned second division team in Europe squaring off successively with Valencia, Benfica, Barca and then Bayern.) Any side that repeatedly plays in this fashion throughout so much of a tournament worthy is hardly worthy to be called champions. There is nothing remotely "enchanting" about cowardly play. Nothing at all "fascinating" about it. However, on another point made, I will agree, Mr. Gardner. Your comment about Chelsea being an English side. What a joke. Hardly. When it comes time to replace Terry, Lampard and Cole, don't look for an Englishman or one from another corner of Great Britain to step into the gap. Certainly no home grown players in this squad except Terry. And that spells organizational failure.

  3. . Lev, May 21, 2012 at 1:35 a.m.

    unpredictable, uncontrollable - beautiful game.
    This is why we love it!!

  4. John Pepple, May 21, 2012 at 7:48 a.m.

    Chelsea won because its opponents were bad at taking penalty kicks.

    So long as fans are willing to tolerate players at the top levels of the game who take penalty kicks that are no better than one would expect from ten-year olds, these kinds of result can be expected.

  5. Theodore Eison, May 21, 2012 at 8:25 a.m.

    Once again, Mr. Gardner, soccer is a sport, not ballet. How can an Englishman hate England so much? Just plain sad. Same. Tired. Article. Please stop embarrassing yourself and hang it up.

  6. John Vatianou, May 21, 2012 at 10:20 a.m.

    sorry, but i call b.s. this same guy, paul gardner, has lamented over and over that greece winning euro 2004 was the epitome of "negative" soccer and a collective nightmare. but when chelsea does the same thing playing the exact same way, it's a "fairy tale" and a "remarkable achievement".

  7. Ramon Creager, May 21, 2012 at 11:41 a.m.

    Well. Just a couple of weeks ago we were ranting against "negative" football, (or anti-football, or whatever else you wish to call it). Chelsea just demonstrated anti-football to perfection. So I think it's worth revisiting this issue with a couple of thoughts. First, the fact that any team can choose to play this game with the tactics of their choice (provided they are within the Laws) is what makes football so appealing. Forget this game; it was awful. Instead, lets take a look at the Manchester City v. QPR game, where Man City were playing for the championship, and QPR to avoid relegation. QPR, *by necessity* (more on this later on...) plays "anti-football" just to survive. And what a game. What suspense. What twists and turns. And what an orgasmic release for City fans when City finally break through at the very end, in added time, when they thought all was lost. Can football get any better than that? All this made possible because the rules allow QPR to play "anti-football" and haven't been tweaked to favor the "better" team (the goals aren't enlarged, etc.). Second, the money. I think it's great when a team like QPR or Levante UD find a style that allows them to survive against the behemoths. I don't find this "anti-football" admirable at all in a team like Chelsea, who DO have the resources to play otherwise. With them, it's just ugly. This is no fairy tale, Mr. Gardner. Fairy tale is what Levante UD did in Spain--6th place, a spot in the Europa League--all with substantially less money than Chelsea pay Juan Mata alone. Chelsea are a wealthy club, and yet play the same style that Levante play. They represent all that is wrong with European football.

  8. Millwall America, May 21, 2012 at 12:13 p.m.

    A column I generally agree with and I'm pleased Mr. Gardner was so reasonable as I know he doesn't care for the style of football that Chelsea played to win the title. This was a great game -- a classic sporting duel of aggressive, skilled, continuous attack vs disciplined, organized, iron-curtain defense. Even as a neutral, I found every minute exciting, wondering if Bayern would be able to crack Chelsea's wall and whether Chelsea would be able to find the long-ball goal on the break against Bayern's high backline. A deserving victory for Chelsea -- as Paul notes, you can get through one game with luck against the best in the world, but not five.

  9. Andres Yturralde, May 21, 2012 at 3:23 p.m.

    So the mystery continues, and I guess that's for the better. That's what makes the game so beautiful and so enchanting. So I agree with .Lev on that point. And I also agree with Gak "that soccer is a game in which the better team does not always win." And thank goodness for that, otherwise it would be pathetically predictable. I came in thinking this match-up wasn't going to be all that, and I was slapped right in the face. It was way, way more than I ever expected. Did anyone seriously think this particular final would unfold the way it actually did? Come on, now, be honest. Let's thank the soccer gods for the wonderful opportunity.

  10. Andrew Ngundue, May 21, 2012 at 5:59 p.m.

    Paul its sad to know that as a commentator you expect pregame predictions to stand and because that is what Platini wants is the best. The reason why we love this sports is because pregame predictions are not significant. Chelsea deserves to win.
    Gary mention of English Spirit was reffered to the country of Chelsea origin not the individual components of the team. Every team at this level has the same, I was waiting for you to say Ribery, Arjen and more are not Germans. You should have also mention that Bayern is playing at home which is more than anything else.

  11. John Hooper, May 22, 2012 at 2:29 p.m.

    I am in total agreement with Carlos Thys and Ramon Creager. I have no problem with underdog teams designing useful defensive systems and then playing out of their skins against "bigger and better" teams an winning. I can't stand Chelsea because, despite all the monye they have invested, they've never found a way to play positive, attackign football in games that matter. They should not be in a position where bunker defense is their first option against other top teams.

  12. Carlos Thys, May 22, 2012 at 2:30 p.m.

    I certainly agree with Mr. Gardner's comment above on this:

    "UEFA President Michel Platini may well be appalled at Chelsea’s win, because it flies in the face of what he is trying -- with immense logic -- to achieve in the field of soccer finances. It would have been a great coup for Platini to have Bayern win this final. Bayern shines as the outstanding example of fiscal stability among soccer’s free-spending rich clubs, a team that does better than any when it comes to nurturing homegrown talent, that does not get involved in what Platini and his fellow reformers see as “irresponsible” spending on star players."

    We all should be.

    Do you really want oil barons from Siberia and Princes from Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia coming to take away all the financial woes of a club like the Columbus Crew or New England Revs? That can surely happen if certain club leaders and the MLS leadership get impatient about "results" and CONCACAF Champions League disappointments.

    The first prince has settled himself and his money in at Paris Saint Germain in France. How long before the next one, two or three?

    Maybe there are those at Blackburn and Bolton is toying with this same "get wins quick" trickery.

    The Germans resolutely refuse to -- at least to this point -- buckle to the dubious monies of bidders like these. And there have been bids and takeover plans. For my thinking, I much prefer the FC Bayern approach.

  13. Carlos Thys, May 23, 2012 at 11:44 a.m.

    Mr. John Hooper, you said it yesterday better and more succinctly. Gracias.

  14. Hal Conen, May 30, 2012 at 9:47 a.m.

    I think there is a lot of misinterpretation Mr. Garner's sarcasm in these comments. I read the article as saying after enough consecutive times of being the lesser team that won that maybe they weren't the lesser team in all of these games after all.

    On the field they certainly looked the lesser team to me in both the semifinal and final but the difference maker for them which Gardner and everyone can't put their fingers on is Petr Cech. Not to take anything away from Neuer who is a fine keeper but it was clear in the final that Chelsea would be at a much lesser of competition without Cech than without Drogba or anyone else not to take away anything from Cole and their back line (and the woodwork) who were all excellent as they were also previously with Terry.

    There is something not clear to me about the offsides call on Ribery in the 54th minute (0:53:xx). His was clearly in an offsides position but his teammate did not pass the ball to him. His teammate took a shot while Ribery was wide and I think it was Cole that blocked the ball wide to Ribery. Is this one of those referee's discretion things or a clear offsides?

  15. Jack Niner, May 31, 2012 at 1:34 p.m.

    Bayern lost because they quit going to Gomez in the second half. Mueller being pulled shows again that a manager can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Chelsea's fitness held up more than Bayern also - Bayern lost it's pace.

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