Yes, I’ll admit it. I am a Chelsea fan. There are always two reactions I receive anytime I bring this fact up in conversations: 1) a rolling of the eyes implying that I am a bandwagon fan/frontrunner, and 2) a worn out joke often including the phrase ‘Chelski’ in reference to Chelsea’s Russian uber-gajjilionaire oil oligarch owner Roman Abramovich. As always, I defend myself against these allegations vehemently by invoking my inner Charles Barkley and using his catch phrase “Let me tellya sumthing”. So let me tell you something, I have been a Chelsea fan since 1997.
Those were the days of Chelsea ‘the lovable losers’. They would beat Manchester United 5-0 one week, only to lose to Middlesbrough the next while always finishing 5th-7th in the Premier League. Fans were eternally optimistic that this would be the year Chelsea break into the ranks of the top three, and give Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool a run for their money. The man who ran things around Stamford Bridge was an ageless English curmudgeon, an Uncle Scrooge reincarnate named Ken Bates, who famously bought Chelsea F.C. for a measly £1 in 1982. If you don’t want to Google image search Ken Bates but still wish to picture what he looks like; imagine the constantly scowling face of Kendrick Perkins, except on an old English dude with white hair, white beard with thick glasses. Basically a mean, grumpy and miserly Santa Claus.
To be fair, Ken Bates had assembled a decent squad. Our front line was led by the lanky Norwegian Tore Andre Flo and the fan favorite Italian and all-time Chelsea legend, Gianfranco Zola. The defence, solid but prone to the usual lapses (we are talking about Chelsea after all) had a decidedly French flavor, founded upon the tandem of Marcel Desailly and Frank Lebouf. The midfield generals who controlled the flow of the game was a quick-tempered Englishman, Dennis Wise, and a jack-of-all-trades, ever-smiling Italian named Roberto DiMatteo.
It was this young midfielder who initially captured my attention and infused Chelsea into my life. A mere 42 seconds into the 1997 FA Cup final against Middlesbrough, DiMatteo scored the fastest goal in FA Cup history at that time, to win the Cup for Chelsea. I was instantly a fan. Since then Chelsea have gone through a series of tumultuous upheavals. Ken Bates sold the club to Roman Abramovich dawning the ‘Chelski Era’. Cheslea were the new rich, throwing money around to sign the best players, going from lovable losers to the team everyone hated (apart from Manchester United of course, who everyone always hates because they just keep winning). Along the way Chelsea experienced their most successful decade, winning 3 titles (their first successes since 1955), 3 FA Cups and 2 League Cups. They had made it. They had arrived. They had the titles, the dominance and the swagger of champions. And yet, the most famous sought after trophy, the holy grail for Abramovich, the Champions League title, has still eluded Chelsea. A heartbreaking game against rivals Manchester United in 2008, was lost famously in penalties when the Captain, John ‘Braveheart’ Terry slipped on the turf and skied the title winning penalty off the crossbar. Chelsea hasn’t returned to the Final of the Champions League since, and the window of opportunity for this team has closed down to just a crack of sunlight.
Where was Roberto DiMatteo in all this time? He retired from soccer at the young age of 31 due to injuries, and was toiling away in obscurity as the coach of the lowly Milton Keynes Dons and then the relegation bound West Bromwich Albion, before latching on as a Chelsea assistant coach at the start of this year. And here he is, at the end of a drama filled season, 15 years after his game-winner in the FA cup, leading Chelsea into the oppressive cauldron of the Nou Camp against a juggernaut Barcelona team, holding on to a slim 1-0 lead, only 90 minutes away from seeing Chelsea through to the Champions League final.
And of course, it is wildly fitting that DiMatteo is leading a team at the end of its prime, no longer champions and no longer dominant, yet lovable losers much like the Chelsea in his heyday. They may defeat Barcelona today…and then lose to Queens Park Rangers on Sunday.