Roman Abramovich's obsession with winning the Champions League turned into reality after Didier Drogba claimed the spoils
It was in the bedlam of the away‑team dressing room, as the European Cup was being hoisted between delirious players bouncing for joy amid the piles of soiled kit and scattered bottles of energy drink, that Roman Abramovich delivered a pledge. The billionaire owner, the man who had made all this possible, called for calm and, with the director Eugene Tenenbaum acting as his impromptu interpreter, spoke quietly of triumph. Of success. Of fulfilment. "We've won it," came the crux of Tenenbaum's translation. "But this is just the beginning."
Chelsea will have a star embroidered on their shirts from now on, with this group of players and their interim first-team coach, Roberto Di Matteo, acknowledged as history makers. Abramovich's speech may have ended well, but it had actually been playfully drowned out more than once. This was the kind of exceptional occasion when an oligarch with an entourage of military-trained bodyguards can be interrupted as he attempts to hold court, the players going for broke with spontaneous choruses of "We want him to stay" whenever the owner mentioned Di Matteo by name. The Italian merely smiled sheepishly as he looked on. He was supposed to be next door in the media theatre offering the world his thoughts, but this was no time to be leaving his squad. It all felt too momentous.
Those scenes in the bowels of the Allianz Arena represented an outpouring of long pent-up emotion. This competition had tormented Chelsea, all those flirtations with semi‑finals over nine long years leaving this squad mentally scarred. The Champions League had steadily become Abramovich's obsession simply because it was the trophy he appeared incapable of claiming, but that has now changed.
"This was the one that was missing, the one where we were always unlucky, but this year our luck reversed," said Petr Cech. "Amazingly enough, back before the second leg of the Napoli game just after André [Villas-Boas] had left the club, I'd said to my wife: 'If we get through this tie, we'll win it all.' Everything was going wrong, the manager had left, we were nowhere in the league, but all our luck was coming in the Champions League. You could kind of feel something was happening."
Even so, the script followed over Di Matteo's 11-week tenure defies belief, the stand‑in's ability to coax confidence from seasoned players who appeared to have mislaid their underlying qualities yielding the trophy that had eluded José Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, Avram Grant and Guus Hiddink at this club. The interim first-team coach's assistant, Eddie Newton, ended up departing the stadium with a smile and "this job's a doddle, isn't it?" to those loitering by the exit. Di Matteo had followed, accompanied by his young son clad in a replica shirt sporting his father's name, clutching the trophy in his hand.
Others had hogged it previously. Didier Drogba, perhaps inevitably, had taken centre-stage in the dressing room while, across the corridor, a steady stream of crestfallen Bayern players skulked out into the night. The Ivorian has been branded by this competition more than most, memories still fresh of the red card in Moscow back in 2008 and the red mist against Barcelona 12 months later, but this was glorious redemption. His wonderful near-post header had drawn the Premier League club level late on and, once Cech had saved the penalty Drogba had conceded in extra-time, it was the striker's fifth spot-kick in the shootout that claimed the spoils. That might yet prove to have been his last kick for Chelsea. If so, it was a fine way to bow out. "No one else could have written an ending like that," said Mikel John Obi. "He's a one-off."
Drogba was in understandably boisterous mood in the aftermath, placing the European Cup on the island in the middle of the away team's vestibule and hauling his 34-year-old frame on to the table top to deliver something akin to a skit in front of the heaving audience. The improvised eulogy touched upon everything from previous near-misses to a theatrical chronology of the evening's events: from unexpected European debuts to defensive resilience, late headed goals to penalty heroics. The testimony was interspersed with a regular refrain that implored, with knees bent in mock worship of the silverware: "Why did you elude us for so long?"
"He was dancing on the table, praying to the cup," said the chairman, Bruce Buck. "It was almost a religious experience."
The performance was not without some good‑natured heckling, largely involving bellowed chants of "We want you to stay" from the assembled playing staff. "Didi will be a politician one day," said Frank Lampard. "The personality he brings out in the squad is as important as what he does out on the pitch. That scene was Didi all over.
"We just felt it was going to happen, that momentum was going our way. Players were crying, people with tears in their eyes. Football can do that. It was the same for the owner when he spoke, talking about the times we'd come so close to winning it, and how delighted he was that we had now. He was emotional. He does really care. You could see how much it meant to him.
"You could tell by the celebrations just what this meant to everyone. It just feels like the ultimate. The circumstances this season, everything leading up to that moment, it all felt absolutely massive. But, this year, we are the best. People might say Barcelona are the best, and I understand that. But, on that night in Munich, we are the best because we've won the Champions League."
That was said almost in disbelief. A weight had been lifted from all these players' shoulders, with this a moment for all to savour, an invitation extended even to the quartet who had been suspended against Bayern. John Terry, Raul Meireles, Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic had changed into their kit long before the final whistle to feel properly part of the event. Terry had even ascended the steps to the presentation wearing shin pads, as if playing the part of enthusiastic, wide‑eyed mascot on the club's big night. There was no trace of disappointment at his non-involvement in his post-match assessment. "Year after year we have had bad memories in this competition, but this completely wipes them away," he said. "It is what we have strived for. Now this season has become the best ever season in Chelsea's history."
Others who had featured perhaps might more normally not have been involved at all. Ryan Bertrand, who had performed efficiently for 73 minutes on his European debut, drank in the celebrations reminding himself that, a year ago, he was winning the reserve‑team league back at Cobham. He will still be wearing his winner's medal on Monday morning. "It stays round my neck," he said. "I haven't really got anywhere to put it, after all."
Then there was David Luiz, a player who had shredded his hamstring in the FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur last month, had struggled in training back at Cobham all week and felt his thigh pop again on Saturday night midway through the first half. He went on to excel for two hours regardless, fuelled by adrenalin alone, and dispatched his own penalty emphatically to wrest back momentum in the shootout. "I'd been out for 35 days and came back to training last week but, two days before the final, I had a bad pain again in the hamstring," he said. "It meant I might not be able to play. I took the fitness test on Friday OK but, even in the game, after 20 minutes I could feel it again. Feel it bad. But I told myself I was not going to let it make me come off.
"I'd worked all my life for this. This was the dream I'd had as a kid, to play in this game. So I told myself that I would play with my heart. I did not need to play with my body when my heart was strong. And now I have the reward. We have won the Champions League."
The Brazilian did not appear hamstrung as he samba-ed his way through the post‑match celebrations, the players only returning to the Mandarin Oriental hotel in the city centre just before 3am with the raucous party prolonged thereafter. Gianfranco Zola and Ruud Gullit, former team‑mates of Di Matteo's, gatecrashed the celebrations but must have felt as if they belonged. A few of the players ended up sleeping in their suits in the hotel's China Moon roof terrace bar, waking bleary eyed at poolside on Sunday morning with their winners' medals still draped around their necks.
Dave Barnard, the club secretary, had retired to his room cradling the trophy and charged with keeping it close. "Because, if it had gone missing, it would have been his fault," said Buck. Someone, one day, may have to own up to making a considerable dent in the silverware itself, just beneath the engraving "Chelsea Football Club 2012", though this was not the time to be talking of depressions of any kind.
"It's still all sinking in, the realisation of what's been accomplished," said Buck, even if this is far from the end. "There are a lot of teams out there with three and four of those stars on their shirts. We have one." Abramovich, his enthusiasm still fired, will believe this can be the first of many.