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.