Abramovich Needs a Dose of Reality

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WE ALL remember our first time. The atmosphere, the sights, sounds andsmells. That outstanding player who will play forever in our mind's eye. Andthe result, usually a thriller with plenty of goals. Actually, the memory oftenplays tricks. What we normally remember is not our first time at all - moreprobably a 0-0 draw - but one of our first matches, one that we expect everygame thereafter to resemble, to live up to. Until we grow up, that is, andrealise that life and the game are not always like that.Maybe that is what has afflicted Roman Abramovich, still a schoolboy infootballing terms. He fell in love with the game, we are told, after watchingManchester United against Real Madrid in the Champions League four years agowhen Sir Alex Ferguson's side so nearly pulled back a first-leg deficit. DavidBeckham was magnificent in a cameo substitute appearance, scoring twice in a4-3 win, but Ronaldo's hat-trick enabled Real to win 6-5 on aggregate.

The patent reality, however, is that not every European match is like that, norcan be under its present, tired format. For each United v Real, there are adozen more like Chelsea v Rosenborg. The former was an epic quarterfinal, thelatter a footling group game. One involved glory, the other was aboutrevenue-raising of the sort that Abramovich, his bean-counters and their ilkacross the continent now need and want.

Chelsea's 1-1 draw with the Norwegians may have been the final straw forAbramovich, frustrated by empty seats and his side's misfiring lapses, but heshould be less naive by now. Though Russians were involved, he is probably noteven aware that earlier that season of 2002-03, Real Madrid were held 2-2 inthe now defunct second group stage at home against Lokomotiv Moscow when 'just'40,000 turned up.

Presumably, he would have sacked coach Vicente Del Bosque after that, had hebeen Real's owner. Actually, Del Bosque was fired at the end of the seasonafter Real had failed to win the Champions League despite shining so brightlyin Manchester. They were ousted in the semi-finals by pragmatic Juventus, whowere beaten 3-2 on penalties in the final by AC Milan after a very dull,goalless 120 minutes.

The moral of this little period of footballing history? Glamour and galacticos,as Jose Mourinho told Abramovich too often for the owner's liking, do notnecessarily bring trophies. And even with copious funds, you cannot bendfootball to your will, force even the highest paid to perform to order, the waythe controlling moneyed sometimes come to believe should happen.

Then again, perhaps we underestimate Abramovich. …