What is the purpose of Chelsea Football Club?

Or, to put it another way, what can Roman Abramovich learn from the children’s author and one-time striker Aivar Pohlak who runs Estonian champions Flora Tallinn and the Estonian FA?

Pohlak doesn’t look like a football club president, he talks more like a rock musician or a poet. But, perhaps because he and his colleagues had to create a club from nothing as Estonia became independent in 1991-92, he has thought long and hard about what purpose clubs serve.

Flashy underachievement, love and a Roman goddess

His view is simple: “Football is about love. You can’t force love, and you can’t buy it, you have to show people you’re worth loving.” To do that, he argues, a club must stand for something. An Estonian patriot, who watched his country’s love for the game almost wither away in the old Soviet Union, Pohlak believed Flora Tallinn should stand for the renewal of Estonia’s football. That’s why the new club’s name honours the Roman goddess of spring.

It takes a certain presumption to propose that your club should define a country’s football culture, but Flora has a mission that goes beyond accumulating trophies – although Pohlak admits it helps to win stuff as well.

Contrast that with Chelsea. What do the Blues stand for? Before Roman Abramovich, Bagehot, the Economist’s political editor confided: “I loved the club because of its reputation for flashy underachievement. For Chelsea, the pleasure was all about knowing that we could beat anyone on our day and lose to anyone on our off-day”.

The old Chelsea were maverick, stylish and puffed up with an inflated sense of their own importance. But they were seldom dull. You could say the same about the first manager Abramovich hired, Jose Mourinho. But Jose’s mysterious exit changed matters.

A Chelsea season ticket holder on the tube to the Zilina game a few weeks ago told a fellow supporter: “I was gutted when he left. I’m still gutted.” Mourinho is seldom far from a Chelsea fan’s thoughts but his memory had been rekindled by another mysterious departure – that of Ray Wilkins – which had rankled. “Proper Chelsea he was,” the supporter said indignantly.

By dispensing with Wilkins’ services, it was as if Chelsea had declared war on its own past, a civil war in which there could be only losers. (One immediate loss: the British media’s mysterious, but burgeoning goodwill for the club evaporated faster than you could say ‘sideways pass’.) Although Peter Osgood is an object of iconic worship at Stamford Bridge his maverick genius seems to have little authentic connection with today’s Chelsea. The club is now often seen as standing for one thing: winning – albeit with a nod to the obligation to be vaguely stylish implied by the example of Osgood, Zola and Hudson.

From Moscow to Barcelona (via Nuneaton)

The idea that football clubs ought to stand for something might strike you as pretentious balderdash. But most clubs do – even if that ‘something’ is as nebulous as their function in their local community.

Clubs often become a focus for particular social, religious, or political causes. In the Soviet Union, support for Spartak Moscow, which had few powerful sponsors in the Communist regime, became a quiet act of political protest. Other clubs come to embody a certain approach to the game. In any division in any league in any country there is always one club that insists it plays football as it should be played. (In England alone, I have heard such a view expressed at Arsenal, Charlton, Leicester City and Nuneaton Town.)

Even before Barcelona became synonymous with beautiful football, they were a potent symbol of Catalonia’s political aspirations. Real Madrid, once the idealised representation of Franco’s Spain, are famed for their enduring commitment to the glory game and great players. Manchester United’s image is still defined by romance, glamour and tragedy. The Busby Babes may have perished more than 50 years ago but that style of football is still embedded in United’s DNA. It would take a decade of 1-0 wins ‘boring boring Arsenal’ style to seriously erode that.

Consultancy Sport + Markt say Chelsea, with 21.4m fans, are the fourth most popular club in Europe. But the Blues still have ten million fewer supporters than Manchester United and Real Madrid. Barcelona aren’t even within touching distance: Sport +Markt puts the club’s European fanbase at 57.8 million.

The Blues cannot swiftly close that gap without a dramatic, transformative event – ergo all the speculation surrounding Pep Guardiola. Abramovich probably believes the best way for Chelsea to make the requisite great leap forward is develop a great team that lives in the memory like Ajax in the 1970s or Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan in the 1990s. Sacchi famously told Marco van Basten that the ultimate victory was to win so well nobody could ever forget you. Even under Ancelotti, one of Sacchi’s protégés and a double winner in his first season at the Bridge, Chelsea have not achieved that.

But even Pep might not be the answer: Barcelona’s gifted young coach is standing on the shoulders of such giants as Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, and Louis Van Gaal. The Barcelona way predated Guardiola and will endure after him. It is unclear how swiftly or successfully that model could supersede – or be grafted onto – Chelsea’s existing modus operandi.

Perceptions, perches and strategies

Under Mourinho, the Blues could have achieved a different kind of immortality, as a record-breaking club that dominated the world’s most popular national league and, given time, won the UEFA Champions League. But that is no longer an option.

Also off the agenda is the original goal of building the kind of ‘team of all the talents’ that made Sunderland famous in the 1890s. Yet if Abramovich was to spend big to make millions more people across the globe love Chelsea, a player might be more useful than a coach. It could be worth £80 million to find a footballer who, through sheer genius or iconic significance, becomes as globally synonymous with Chelsea as Lionel Messi is with Barcelona. But such a move seems unlikely.

So the strategy seems essentially to hope that Carlo Ancelotti can make the most of a squad that looks a bit short on depth, win the Champions League and, as the club’s promising youngsters are blooded, build on that momentum.

That might sound a long shot but there’s a lot of football to be played between now and May. And Wilkins even suggested on Sky Sports that Chelsea are the only team that could beat Barcelona in the Champions League this season. Asked how they could do that, Wilkins replied, with deadpan wit: “With great difficulty”.

Proving Chelsea are worth loving to a sceptical global audience won’t be easy either. Flora Tallinn’s example suggests that Chelsea won’t get the love they need to see them through their desire to knock Barcelona or Real Madrid off their perches if they are perceived as primarily standing for ruthless ambition. In an increasingly globalised football industry, even Millwall have realised that “No one likes us, we don’t care” doesn’t quite cut it any longer.