Michael Emenalo, a former Chelsea technical director, has revealed that some people thought he was appointed at the English club because he was a supposed killer for its Russian billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich.
Speaking in an interview in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a black American, by a white policeman in the United States, Emenalo said he was doubted by stakeholders in football because of his race, and not as a result of his competencies.
He explained that he suffered the “quiet dignity” of racism as a black man while in England, noting that some journalists thought that he could not speak the English language because he is an African.
“Absolutely. It eats at you,” Emenalo told the UK Guardian of his experience of racism.
When I was appointed [as technical director] some journalists didn’t think I spoke English. They said I had never played the game [Emenalo won 14 caps for Nigeria and marked Diego Maradona and Roberto Baggio in the 1994 World Cup].
“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.”
The former Nigerian international, who was initially Chelsea’s chief opposition scout and assistant first-team coach, stated that the narrative of racism had an impact on him while at Chelsea.
He noted that he had to lessen his activism for the inclusion of minority ethnicities in football while he was The Blues’ technical director, a decision which stimulated the perception of fellow blacks of him being one of the privileged few persons of colour to climb up the scale in football management
“When I sit behind the bench at a game, I want to be close to my work. But it’s also so that people of my colour could say: ‘I can do that.’ People in the parking lot would say: ‘Oh my God, you don’t know what you mean to us.’ Then I feel even worse because I want to say more,” he said.
Emenalo disclosed that he never applied for all of the positions he occupied while at Chelsea, adding that Abramovich trusted him to become his right-hand man two months after his appointment as technical director due to his competencies.
He said: “Mr Abramovich validated me after two and a half months. I didn’t apply for any of my roles. I came in as head of opposition scout, to help Avram Grant, and met Roman a few times. Apparently what I said made sense to the owner.
“After we lost the 2008 Champions League final Avram was let go. I told Avram I will go with him. Avram said: ‘No. He likes you. He believes in you.’ When I talked to the owner my only request was that I should be relevant. The interpreter smiled when Roman said: ‘Tell him he will be very relevant.’”
He added: “When I became technical director Bruce Buck [Chelsea’s chairman] organised for me to meet numerous journalists at a roundtable [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.”