The joy of Chelsea hiring an innovative, attack-minded coach is tempered by three little clouds hovering on the horizon. (There are other, bigger expectation-tempering clouds hanging right over us, too, largely thanks to the lack of time we have to properly prepare for the season, but the focus here is on the off-pitch issues.) They were touched on briefly during Chelsea’s pursuit of Sarri, but were always going to have to be addressed head-on once his appointment became official.
In yesterday’s introductory press conference, Sarri did just that.
The least concerning cloud is the notion of being a superstitious oddball — making his Empoli squad spray-paint their boots a lucky black; possibly imploring Chelsea to not announce him on Friday the 13th; etc. — and, in a complete contrast to Antonio Conte’s (indeed, all of football’s) push for healthier lifestyles, a chain-smoker. His multi-pack per day habit is his business of course (minus the second-hand smoke), and as long as he can find designated smoking areas and a strong supply of nicotine gum and patches, he will be just fine. (Though expect the “chain-smoker” qualifier to be thrown around as a cheap-shot attack on his character, just like Conte’s hairplugs used to be or Guardiola’s baldness is often used.)
The other two, though, aren’t just personal clouds. By hiring him, they become Chelsea’s clouds, too. Both involve the use of, at best, intolerant language, or more realistically, showing outright bigotry.
One cloud is homophobia. In January 2016, then-Inter coach Roberto Mancini got into a spat with Sarri during an Italian Cup quarterfinal. Afterwards, Mancini accused Sarri of using homophobic slurs. Sarri apologized in private but in public claimed he “couldn’t remember” and that “what is said on the pitch should stay on the pitch”. Mancini was having none of that, telling Rai TV that “people like [Sarri] should not be in football [and] he should really be ashamed of himself”. Arguments often bring out the worst in people, and things are often said in the heat of the moment that we regret later. However, even if we allow for that conceit, that is no excuse.
The offence was deemed grave enough that the Italian FA, who have a long history of turning a blind eye to similar offenses (we only have to look at Antonio Rüdiger’s experience with racial abuse while at AS Roma), banned Sarri for two matches and fined him €20,000. Worse yet, just the year prior, while still at Empoli, Sarri again dropped the f-word (and not in the sense of referring to a cigarette) while also using “homosexuals” as a pejorative against referees. He was fined €5000 for that incident.
One time may be a mistake. Two times, and a pattern starts forming.
The third time wasn’t homophobic in nature, but Sarri was found apologizing once again, this time for a sexist remark. In March, after a frustrating draw with Inter at San Siro, a female reporter asked him if Napoli’s title hopes were now dead. His answer left something to be desired. “You’re a woman, you’re beautiful, for those two reasons I won’t tell you to go f*** yourself.” Sarri apologized immediately after the press conference.
On Wednesday, all he asked for was a chance to show his real nature.
“People make mistakes. One of these mistakes was made when I was angry. Another was not even a mistake — it was a journalist with whom I shared jokes for three years. It was misconstrued.
”These were mistakes, that is for sure. I think those who know me well cannot define me in this way. Homophobic, sexist, racist. Absolutely not. I am an extremely open person, I do not have these kind of problems. I hope I will show this when I am working here and living here.
”These mistakes were made yes, but when someone makes a mistake they must apologise and accept some allegations can be made by the press. A professional and ethical attitude is very important, more than apologies. I hope you will have the chance to get to know you better and forget about this very quickly.”
-Maurizio Sarri; source: ESPN
So that’s all well and good, but, like he says, admitting a mistake is the least one expects in such situations. Sarri has to show that he has indeed learned his lessons through subsequent behavior and they are not just attacks by the press. That he has a history of reprehensible comments is not a great start in that regard. That he has an even greater history of bad temper and not just on the training ground isn’t helping. A one-finger salute to rival fans may be hilarious on a tribal level, but in terms of a professional attitude and behavior, it’s far from it.
Chelsea of course knew all this when the club began the long process of replacing Conte with him. It is something we, as an organization, accepted as a suitable face for the new “non-sufferball” revolution we’re about to have. It is something that we, as fans, now have to deal with — either by acknowledging it, ignoring it, dismissing it, compartmentalizing it, or worse — and it is something that will be used to tie in similar controversies and crimes from the club’s own past.
Chelsea knew about Sarri's past when they first considered him. If they don't end up appointing him it will have nothing to do with his previous history and everything to do with money. If his lawyers can make him a free agent let's see what happens. If not..— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) June 1, 2018
I am a firm believer in the ability of people to change, even at an old(er) age. What can change the nature of a man? It’s a question many asked, but my favorite answer belongs to a video game, of all things. “Many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear — whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”
I’ve seen it in myself, I’ve seen it happen in with friends and family. We don’t really know Maurizio Sarri on that level, I certainly don’t, but I have to believe he’s capable of changing in this regard. Your own mileage may vary.