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Roman Abramovich’s Complex, Successful, Transformative Chelsea Reign

An end of a nearly two-decade era is coming for Chelsea, one marked by big spending, trophies and an owner who ushered in a new age—not entirely for the better.

On the final day of the 2003–04 season, Arsenal’s players danced the can-can on the pitch at Highbury after completing its Invincibles season with a 2–0 win. Even in the moment of celebration, success can be tinged with a sense that the path is likely to lead only downward, but there was no reason then to anticipate decline, far from it. Three months earlier, building work had finally begun on the club’s new stadium, which would increase capacity by more than 50% and lead to a wide range of commercial opportunities.

Seven miles to the southwest, at Stamford Bridge, Claudio Ranieri performed a tearful lap of the pitch after Chelsea’s 1–0 win over Leeds. He hadn’t formally been sacked then, but everybody knew that after failing to mount a serious title challenge despite vast investment in new players, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich would replace him, probably with the exciting young manager of Porto, José Mourinho.

Even now, when it is more shaped by money than it has ever been, football retains its capacity for mischief. The next time Ranieri visited Stamford Bridge would be 12 years later, when he was presented with the Premier League trophy—not as manager of Chelsea but of the team who had lost at Highbury as he had said farewell, Leicester. Earlier in the season it had been at Leicester that Chelsea had suffered the defeat that led to Mourinho's being dismissed by Abramovich for the second time. But mostly, money wins out, and, in that regard, Abramovich took football into a new age.

For Arsenal in 2004, the new stadium was a logical step. The limitations of Highbury compared to Old Trafford left Arsenal at a disadvantage compared to its obvious rival at the head of the English game, Manchester United. But when Abramovich bought Chelsea from Ken Bates for £140 million in ’03, a third force entered the fray and, more than that, changed the rules of the game. Abramovich’s takeover paved the way not only for the Abu Dhabi takeover of Manchester City and the Saudi takeover of Newcastle but also for the Glazer takeover of Manchester United.

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Before Abramovich, the only Premier League club not in British hands was Fulham, and it was owned by Mohamed Al-Fayed, the Egyptian owner of Harrods whose son had died in the car crash that killed Princess Diana and who coveted British citizenship. Today, only five Premier League clubs are majority-British owned.

Perhaps that doesn’t much matter. The days when businessmen invested in their local clubs because they supported them or to give something back to the community (or to gain status; that has been happening since the beginnings of the game) have long gone. The Premier League is a global league with players, managers and fans from all around the world. Overseas broadcast rights now outstrip domestic deals.

But inevitably that detaches clubs from the communities that bore them and that at one time they represented. And once foreign states get involved, it can lead to absurd situations such as Monday’s when it felt that there would be ramifications in the Premier League from how Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE voted on a United Nations motion condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

More generally, when a megarich investor gets involved, it decouples finance from success on the pitch or from the size of a fan base. That has always happened. When Jack Walker bought Blackburn, it was able to buy players on a scale out of keeping with a town of 115,000 population. But there was a difference: His investment allowed Blackburn to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool; it didn’t mean it could outstrip them. By the time Arsenal finished building the Emirates, though, Chelsea was already out of sight.

In Abramovich’s first year, Chelsea spent £153 million on players. To put that in context, the other nine teams who finished in the top half the previous season spent £164 million between them. These were unprecedented sums. In his second year, he spent another £150 million. By then it didn’t really matter how big Arsenal’s new stadium was: The club couldn’t compete with an oligarch.

Chelsea fans, of course, relished it. Before Abramovich, Chelsea had won the league only once, in 1954–55. Its reputation for a long time was as a team of flashy mavericks who couldn’t play consistently well. Raquel Welch or Henry Kissinger would turn up in the crowd, as befitted Stamford Bridge’s position just off the King’s Road, but it was hard to square that stylishness or sense of celebrity with the club’s underachievement, and still less its reputation for hooliganism. That had begun to change by the late ’90s, when it became home to a raft of (largely aging) high-level foreign players, but it was Abramovich who brought success: five league titles, two Champions Leagues, five FA Cups and three League Cups in his 19 years.

Roman Abramovich and Chelsea after winning the Champions League title

Perhaps he would have had more had he accepted earlier that football is a game that cannot entirely be controlled. Sacking Carlo Ancelotti for finishing second the season after he had done the double, in particular, seems a move borne out of unhelpful impatience. Mourinho’s first dismissal came after months of wrangling, but only eight games into the 2007–08 season, and Chelsea had lost just once.

As a result, Chelsea never really developed the sort of identity Abramovich seems to have craved and so was always dependent on his wealth. Thomas Tuchel, perhaps, could provide that: Certainly it seems he is being treated with a longer-term view than many previous managers. There is a piquancy both in that, and in the fact that Abramovich will relinquish control of the club a couple of months after completing the full set of available trophies by winning the FIFA Club World Cup.

Abramovich has changed the club in other ways and many initiatives have clearly been laudable. A mural at Stamford Bridge commemorates the Holocaust and Chelsea pays tribute on Holocaust Remembrance Day each year, while there were donations to the NHS during the early days of the pandemic.

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But he cannot be judged on football alone. Abramovich is somebody who made a lot of money amid the Wild West capitalism of Russia in the 1990s. He has always denied close links to Vladimir Putin or the Kremlin, often taking legal action against anybody who has hinted at it. But in the House of Commons this week, Conservative MP David Davis described Abramovich as “the man who manages President Putin’s private economic affairs, according to the Spanish national intelligence committee. This is a man who was refused a Swiss residency permit, due to suspected involvement in money laundering and contacts with criminal organizations. Abramovich was also deemed a danger to public security and a reputational risk to Switzerland.”

Davis also made specific reference to football. “When he bought Chelsea FC,” Davis said, “Abramovich was the governor of the Chukotka region of Russia. It was alleged by associates of his that the purchase was done at the behest of the Kremlin. As a result of the purchase, he now has enormous soft power and influence in the U.K. I ask the House to come to its own conclusion about whether this man is acting at the behest of the Kremlin or Putin’s Government.”

Vladimir Putin and Roman Abramovich

Again, it should be reiterated that Abramovich has always denied that, insisting he bought Chelsea because of his love of football and with no political end in mind. And it should also be remembered that Davis is a former Brexit minister for a Conservative party that has accepted millions in pounds in donations from Russians and has essentially looked the other way as Russian money has flowed into London’s financial and legal institutions while buying up swathes of property. In that sense, English football is no different from anything else in England: up for sale to the highest bidder and worry about the potential consequences later.

Quite what those consequences are will become clearer over the coming months. Abramovich’s statement announcing the sale—which came four days after he said he was handing over “stewardship and care” to the club Trustees—was vague. He said he was writing off the £1.5 billion he has loaned the club, but it’s not clear what that means or whether he actually can. Is that write-off factored in the overall price? And if not, wouldn’t an effective gift of that magnitude incur a tax liability, probably of around £400 million, which would not only be a burden on a new owner (although obviously less than a £1.5 billion debt), but would hammer the club in terms of Financial Fair Play?

And when he refers to donating the “net proceeds” to a charitable foundation set up to support the “victims” of the war, what exactly does he mean? Victims, it turns out, means from both sides; there is a sense in which young Russian soldiers are also victims of Putin’s aggression, but greater clarity on exactly how that will be arranged is probably required. A level of obfuscation is perhaps only natural given the difficult political game Abramovich is having to play, but that brings us back to the basic point. Once clubs—these community institutions—are sold to states or oligarchs, or even hedge funds, they become directly subject to events and tides that have nothing to do with football.

The assumption is that Abramovich will find a willing billionaire to buy Chelsea. But what if he doesn’t? And what if the new billionaire is not so generous? So far, the British government has been slow to impose sanctions, but pressure is mounting. Three Labour MPs, including the opposition leader Keir Starmer, have raised questions in parliament. France and Germany have both confiscated yachts belonging to oligarchs. Why not the U.K.? And if assets are seized before a sale can be concluded, what then?

Instinctively it may feel unfair for Chelsea fans to suffer, but then they have benefited from Abramovich’s wealth over the last 19 years. It was unfair that Bury went bankrupt because of the actions of its owner. It’s unfair that Derby has been docked 21 points and is facing liquidation. Those are just the rules of business ownership, and that’s why football clubs shouldn’t be regarded as straightforward businesses.

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Manchester City and Newcastle fans have, by and large, been happy to welcome their owners, and a small percentage have become effectively human bot farms, attacking critics not just of their clubs but of the owners. But is it impossible that a situation arises in which the UAE or Saudi Arabia end up being sanctioned? Clearly not, and some would argue that the war in Yemen is cause enough already. That’s the world into which Abramovich has led English football.

And the truth is, it’s still not clear why he did it. The story at the time went that he had been so gripped by Manchester United’s 4–3 win over Real Madrid (a game that was never quite as exciting as has often subsequently been suggested given Madrid was 3–1 up from the home leg and 6–3 up on aggregate with an away goal advantage from the 58th minute) in April 2003 that he decided he had to buy a football club.

Back then, there was perhaps a vague sense that he was doing it to raise his profile outside of Russia, to secure himself against Putin, but that was a different world. If there was a moral dimension to discussion of his takeover it was perhaps slightly that it wasn’t clear—as it still isn’t—how he had managed to control quite so much of Russia’s natural resources, but mainly that he was going to buy success. Mostly though, for his first game as owner, a Champions League qualifier against MSK in the pretty northwest Slovakian market town of Žilina, all churches and squares and fine views of the mountains, the sense was of excitement at just how many good players he was signing.

There was none of the cynicism that surrounded the Saudi takeover of Newcastle; the word “sportswashing” was only popularized in 2018. And they are different. Javier Tebas, the president of the Spanish league, may have described Abramovich as “half a state” on Thursday, but he is still an individual. Sheikh Mansour and the Saudi PIF are clearly acting for political ends; Abramovich’s motives remain opaque.

But what is certain is that he ushered in this modern age in which football is a side stage, one for greater geopolitical games. Whatever Chelsea fans have to be grateful for, it’s hard to see how football as a whole can thank him for that.

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