ONE of my favourite tennis stories comes from the days of wooden rackets. Volleying artistes abounded and big servers were considered freaks from up country – remember Roscoe Tanner of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee? In Paris – a long way from Tennessee in every sense – Ilie Nastase partnered Vitas Gerulaitis in the men’s doubles and this seemed like a dream pairing of the game’s great playboy entertainer and his understudy, only for them to misread the time they were due on court and stay too long at the chic nightclub. In a desperate attempt to sober up they forsook the courtesy car and jogged through the streets to the tournament. And when that didn’t work they resorted to slurping coffee as they changed ends.
I thought of Nastase and Gerulaitis last week as Jose Mourinho’s schemes came unstuck and Paris Saint-Germain dumped his Chelsea out of the Champions League. In the build-up the message from Stamford Bridge was that PSG weren’t a team in the strictest sense but a bunch of dilettantes who just happened to be passing through the French capital on the way to their next fat appearance cheques. Just like Ilie and Vitas.
Mourinho had a dig at the bonus culture at the club and he had a go at the standard of competition in the French league, which is hardly PSG’s fault, but nevertheless the inference of the “We train harder than you play” headlines was clear enough.
The Portuguese controversialist’s cheerleaders in the English press picked up the theme with one story examining the relationship, or rather non-relationship, between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani, the strikers who are not rumoured to be best buddies, who rarely pass to each other and are reluctant to celebrate each other’s goals, and whose only commonality could be found in their gun cupboards – both love to hunt.
Once again the implication was clear: yet more evidence that PSG were not really a team and we should sit back, count the flounces and petted lips passing between these long-haired prima donnas and laugh. Almost as much as we were going to laugh at David Luiz and his pure dead ker-ay-zee concept of defending and wonder how on earth Chelsea managed to persuade PSG to buy him from them for £50 million.
What happened? Luiz was brilliant, PSG were brilliant, Edi and Ibra hardly got the chance to glower through their gun-sights at each other before the latter was harshly red-carded – and Chelsea, English champions-elect, very possibly the only team from the vaunted Premier League to be likely to reach the quarter-finals, were abysmal.
The Chelsea propaganda-machine got it hopelessly wrong: you don’t play for an hour and a half away from home with ten men, come back from a goal down, do that again in extra-time, if you’re not a bona fide team. Meanwhile the EPL propaganda-machine had told us, among other things, that Cesc Fabregas was a creative genius, the Player of the Year-elect, when just about his only telling contribution to the match was the extravagant early dive in an attempt to demonstrate to the referee what Mourinho had been saying about PSG being more aggressive than Bradford City, thus setting the tone for what came later. Fabregas was completely outshone by Marco Verratti who few in the self-obsessed world of “the Prem” would have known beforehand.
Chelsea’s image in the Champions League is hardly glistening. Remember how they kicked Lionel Messi up in the air? Remember the referee they hounded right out of football? Even their 2012 triumph was lucky and win-ugly. And some of their fans have hardly been bright and shining exemplars of civility and decency in underground train stations.
But, football-wise, we were told they’d changed. They were going to be proactive, pass it around, give Roman Abramovich the beautiful football he craved from up in his Nero-like vantage-point. Well, they started doing this, albeit that there was rather too much orgasmic exultation of a neat goal against Burnley, but this has always been the English way. Against PSG, however, we saw the old Chelsea, the bad Chelsea, the unlovely Chelsea.
The sight of so many of their players crowded round the referee after Ibrahimovic had slid in on Oscar – and it should be said the latter had slid in on him – was gruesome. As they gestured, pointed and jumped up and down, they resembled lager louts making the ambulance crew’s job even more difficult while the drunkest lay slumped outside a grim theme-pub. Even John Terry, usually the goader-in-chief, had the good grace to admit that it “did not look good at all”.
Nothing about Wednesday did Chelsea’s reputation any good, or that of the Premier League with its stonking TV deal – or indeed that of the second coming of Mourinho. He doesn’t seem to have any new tricks. Just the same old braggadocio, the same old smokescreens, the same old cynicisms, and of course in Scotland we’ve known about them going all the way back to 2003 and his Porto team’s skulduggery against Celtic in the UEFA Cup final. He said Chelsea had failed mentally with the challenge of the tie, which makes you think he should spend less time on mind-games and more on getting inside his players’ heads, sorting them out.
Meanwhile, Paris emerges with its reputation enhanced. Not as a beautiful city, it will always be that, but a football city. Parisians weren’t supposed to care for football very much, the cynics reckoned. Then the millions rolled in to PSG prompting – who else? – David Beckham to bring his circus to town for one last jump-on-the-goalscorer’s-back photo-op. Paris was decadent. A place with good shops where the players went for the money and not necessarily the career advancement. Well, with Manchester City and Arsenal in serious danger of being bombed out of the Champions League this week, isn’t that a more accurate description of the Premier League?
Mind you, I love the Ibrahimovic-Cavani rivalry and the suggestion that when Ibra hunts wild boar on his private Swedish island he’s looking for one that most resembles his infernal team-mate and that Edi does something similar back home in Uruguay. Maybe they should sort out once and for all who owns the centre-forward berth with a game of tennis. After a night on the bevvy, of course.