“He’s African he must have killed somebody for the owner.” Emenalo reveals the level of racism he suffered at Chelsea
Former Nigerian international, Michael Emenalo recalls the contempt his heritage brought him during his stint as Director of Football at Chelsea.
In an interview with The Guardian, the 55-year-old reflects that despite his obvious success pulling strings from the club’s administrative box, he has to prove himself repeatedly in a way not demanded of white directors.
“Each time I climbed the hill and convinced them of my worth. I have a university degree in international relations and diplomacy. I know how to deal with people and with situations. I had World Cup experience [USA 1994] and been part of this industry on five continents. I said: ‘I’ll give them an opportunity to understand me.’ They all did but it’s not easy starting from ground zero every time.
“Everybody has a misconception of my knowledge, insight and experience. I did it 10 times with 10 managers.” He said, referring to the 10 managers he worked with during his 12 years stink at the club.”
Born in the city of Aba, he began his football with neighboring Enugu Rangers, a team which embodies the innate industriousness and creativity of his native Igbo people, before flying across the Atlantic to Boston University where he acquired a degree in international relations and diplomacy while playing active football.
Immediately after his program, he moved to Racing White Daring Molenbeek in Belgium where his World Cup dreams were almost ruined but he grabbed a lifeline by joining Eintracht Trier in German regional football and consequently won himself a place in USA 1994. Injury sat him out the first game but he returned for the matches against Greece and Argentina—where he marked Diego Maradona out.
Yet this impressive history, the press was sure he wasn’t capable of conducting the affairs of a super club like Chelsea.
“When I became technical director Bruce Buck [Chelsea’s chairman] organised for me to meet numerous journalists at a roundtable you [interview]. The club knows my value. They said: ‘Now is the time for you to become a more visible presence.’ So we had this 90-minute conversation and afterwards the journalists said: ‘Wow. We didn’t know all that.’ It’s a back-handed compliment. I came from Africa so how could I know about football? But my success at Chelsea, especially with the academy, comes from my experience in Nigeria.”
“Some were blatant stereotypical and racist?
“Absolutely. It eats at you. When I was appointed [as technical director] some journalists didn’t think I spoke English. They said I had never played the game. Some people said: ‘Why did this Russian owner, who knows thousands and thousands of people, confide in him? He’s African so he must have killed somebody for the owner.’ No one stopped to think it could possibly be because of my intellect or experience.”
Thankfully, the club owner, Roman Abramovich, sees beyond skin colour and prejudice, and Emenalo was able to impress him within few months in the role. The Nigerian then leverage on the trust and revamped the club’s academy and recruiting structure.
“My argument was that all big clubs had great academies. Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid. But creating a new identity at Chelsea, rooted in the academy, while his ambition is to win trophies, was difficult.
“At first everybody said: ‘Nobody’s come from the academy.’ But a kid who comes to the academy at seven won’t be ready to challenge Frank Lampard when he’s 19. It became key to look at that space between 19 and 22 where we can prepare him to be a Chelsea player. We did that with De Bruyne.” He said of his vision for Chelsea.
Emenalo’s innovations brought the club 3 Premier League titles, 1 UEFA Champions League, 1 UEFA Europa League, and several of sizzling young talents now coming through the academy.
Emenalo hopes at his next job he’ll be judged on his competence and not his heritage and looks.
“The narrative has to change. The narrative right now is always that white is good. There’s always someone saying a white guy can do it better. People need to do the right thing.”
Shehu Idris Tẹjumọla18 Posts
Shehu Idris Tẹjumọla is a football fanatic, a voracious reader of football contents and an Indefatigable football writing junkie. Author of future Man Booker-winning, best-selling books.