Zurich – Chelsea's crop of exciting young players is helping repair the club's damaged image, says the club's chief executive Ron Gourlay.
The Champions League winner has struggled to win friends during public disputes fueled by racism allegations, while talismanic captain John Terry and big-spending owner Roman Abramovich have long been polarizing personalities in English football.
Now, the widely admired talent of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar is shifting people's perception.
“That's where we want to be,” Gourlay told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday. “I think people like the way they are seeing Chelsea play football now, and that's very important because it portrays itself as the image of the club.
“We are in a very, very strong place,” the chief executive said on the sidelines of the Chelsea-backed International Football Arena conference in Zurich.
The popularity Chelsea enjoys in Asia and the United States is elusive at home since Abramovich bought the Stamford Bridge club in 2003.
Chelsea teams have since been respected more than loved by rival Premier League clubs' fans who sense arrogance in west London, encouraged by former coach Jose Mourinho and apparently embraced by some players.
“We have to keep focused on the football games and really get to a point where the football does our talking for us,” Gourlay said.
Brazilian midfielder Oscar's 40-yard (-meter) strike in a 3-2
win over an impressive Shakhtar Donetsk team in the Champions League last week helped keep commentators chattering about a team that aimed to get younger, faster and more skillful this season. Belgium playmaker Hazard was another key recruit.
Praise for Chelsea's first European title last May, and well-liked coach Roberto Di Matteo, was still muted. The veteran, expensively assembled team did not fit the ideal image of a plucky underdog stifling attack-minded opponents like Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Terry infuriated many - after being sent off in the semifinals and suspended for the final in Munich- on joining the trophy presentation at the climax of a season in which the protracted case against him for racist abuse was a defining incident.
The former England captain, who lost that honor in fallout from profanity he aimed at Queen's Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand in October 2011, completed his eventual four-match ban from the Football Association for that offense just this month.
Chelsea is now involved in a second case, after accusing referee Mark Clattenburg of using “inappropriate language” toward midfielder John Obi Mikel in a league match against Manchester United on Oct. 28. The police and FA are investigating.
“There are things that have happened that damaged the image,” Gourlay said, acknowledging that Chelsea has been under fire. “There are bullet prints in our armor.”
Still, the Scottish official believes his club can defy expectations.
After Abramovich absorbed around $1 billion of losses, Chelsea beat market predictions last Friday by announcing a 1.4 million pounds ($2.2 million) profit in the financial year ending in June.
“I think it surprised quite a few people,” Gourlay said. “It's a small profit, but it's profit when you turn it around from a 67
million pound loss” last year.
Red ink flowed from the Champions League title, but also shrewder transfer dealings. Revenue increased to 255.7 million pounds ($406 million) - fifth best in Europe.
Success brought new backers on board - Delta Airlines, Russian energy giant Gazprom and German automaker Audi - which will boost the next report, helping keep Chelsea on the right side of Uefa's “Financial Fair Play” monitoring rules.
“People have got a little hung up on the new sponsors. But they're not in the last year's figures so we still have that kind of commercial growth to come,” Gourlay said.
Those sponsors likely would be elsewhere if Chelsea, sixth-placed finishers in the Premier League, had not won the Champions League final to take its last route back into this season's competition.
More revenue will flow from Chelsea representing Europe in the Fifa Club World Cup next month.
Happily for Gourlay, Chelsea plays in Yokohama in the final time the tournament is held in Japan, a key fan market. Morocco hosts in the next two years.
“It's a good year to be in it,” he said.
Chelsea returns to Asia for its next offseason tour after a lucrative visit to the United States last July. New markets await to be tapped.
“We have got to start looking at the wider picture of Brazil, Mexico, India,” Gourlay said.
Money-spinning tours are even more important while Chelsea's potential is limited by its 41,000-capacity home stadium with no viable new site to develop. The search has also hampered naming rights options for Stamford Bridge.
“When you are talking to any potential partner you need a clearer road to where we're going,” said Gourlay, who regrets that a deal could not be sealed for the Battersea Power Station site. “We would have built a fantastic iconic stadium there.”
It was an emotional loss in a turbulent year for Chelsea and its chief executive, who gained last month when Fifa awarded him a seat on its Marketing and Television Committee.
Gourlay hopes Chelsea has grown during its journey from exactly one year ago, when a team coached then by Andre Villas-Boas topped the Premier League table.
“We have learned from the mistakes we have made.” Gourlay said. “Hopefully the football club is in a good position to push forward now.” – Sapa-AP