Roman Abramovich is a trusted person of Putin.
Photo: ANDY RAIN
Over the years, there have been three stories to explain how the surf brought Roman Abramovich to Chelsea. Now, each one is a kind of time capsule, a relic of a specific period determined by carbon dating that captures in amber each of the stages of our understanding of the precise transformation of football.
The first took hold immediately after Abramovich bought Chelsea. It was light, confused, somewhat romantic. Legend has it that Abramovich had been at Old Trafford on the night in 2003 when Manchester United fans rose to their feet to applaud the great Brazilian striker Ronaldo as he knocked their team out of the Champions League.
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It was said that Abramovich had been so enthralled that he decided right then and there that he wanted a piece of English football. He considered Arsenal and Tottenham but settled on Chelsea, a glamorous, bohemian team that was just shy of the Premier League elite. He had fallen in love so madly and impetuous that he bought the club in little more than a weekend.
And back then, that was almost enough. It was absurd and bizarre the idea that this conundrum of unimaginable wealth would suddenly descend on Chelsea, lavishing hundreds of millions of dollars on transfer tokens like it was nothing. Yet it was also flattering in those early days of Londongrad, of Moscow on the Thames, when the stucco-fronted houses of the capital’s fanciest streets were filling with Russian oligarchs and the country’s finest schools were overcrowding. with his kids.
All of this spoke not only to Tony Blair’s UK hands-off approach – come one, come all, as long as they can afford the ticket price – but also to the ego of the country in general and the Premier League in particular.
The young plutocrats of Russia had more money than Croesus, more money than God, money that could buy whatever they wanted. And, it seemed, they wanted more than anything to be British. Abramovich wanted to be British so much that he had bought a football team, a toy in the supposed best league in the world. His money added a bit of spice, a bit of glamour, to the infinite dizzying drama of the Premier League; his money made the great English soft power project a little more seductive.
Only a few years had passed when the second story emerged, after the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. The idea was raised that maybe Abramovich hadn’t fallen in love with football, or rather, hadn’t just fallen in love with football. He maybe he did have an ulterior motive. After all, Chelsea not only gave him access to the highest echelons of British society, it also gave him a profile, fame.
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He didn’t seem particularly delighted — “One day they’ll forget me,” he said in one of the rare interviews he’s given since arriving in England — but he seemed prepared to believe it was a price worth paying. Being an oligarch was a dangerous business. Perhaps Chelsea was Abramovich’s security against the changing tides in the Kremlin.
That was the story we told ourselves when Chelsea went from usurper to institution; the club that initially inspired the idea of ending careerist wealth was suddenly recast as one of its main proponents. It was the story that took hold as Chelsea racked up Premier League titles, as they conquered Europe not once but twice: that football was the sanctuary, the ultimate mark of acceptance.
In fact, it was not until others began to adopt Abramovich’s manual that the narrative was questioned. First one and then two Premier League teams fell under the sponsorship of nation states or entities so tied to a nation state that it can be hard to tell the difference unless you really, really want to look closely. The idea of bleaching in sport seeped into the conversation. The idea that football was being used took hold. Abramovich’s possible motives were reconsidered.
And then, on Thursday, we saw for the first time—clear as day—what the purpose of it all had been, the story in its true, unadorned form. For two weeks, the British government had flirted with sanctioning Abramovich, perhaps not the richest, not even the most powerful, but by far the most high-profile of the entire caste of oligarchs, the face of the oligarchy in the West. .
It turns out that for much of those two weeks a way had been sought to ensure that Chelsea could continue to function, in a more or less normal way, when Abramovich’s other assets were frozen. Players, staff and fans — especially fans — must not suffer, the government said. A few hours earlier, Russian artillery had shelled a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine. However, the government was clear: the sanctity of the Premier League could not be tarnished.
Apparently, that was the purpose all along. It is probable that Abramovich appreciated the profile that being the owner of Chelsea gave him. He certainly seemed to revel in the sport.
However, he had come to football because it involved him with British society in a way that owning any other business simply would not have. None of the other oligarchs who have been sanctioned have been given a tailored “license” to continue operating one of their businesses. After all, sanctions aren’t supposed to work like that. It took nineteen years and the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians for us to realize that, to see the world as it was.
The clubs face a reckoning. Not only the teams that are owned by princelings, nation states or politicians, but also the ones that are not. It’s not just the promise of hefty television rights contracts that has lured soccer’s “decent” investors, private equity groups, hedge funds and Wall Street speculators. They haven’t fallen more in love with the game than Abramovich.
All of them have come in and then left, at some point in the future, when they have made their clubs as profitable as possible, when there is the possibility of a lucrative return. And yet, they suddenly find that their list of potential buyers is limited. Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia: they all have their clubs now. China’s big cash flurry ended years ago, as Inter Milan can attest. Now, Russian money is also ruled out.
Of course, there is no shortage of the rich, powerful, or speculators, even with those markets closed and cordoned off. Those who remain, however, are a different kind of buyer: They are other private equity firms, other hedge funds, other types from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Almost entirely, they are those who want to make a profit. They don’t want to be the ones buying at the top of the market. They didn’t earn their money innocently.
That may seem a bit vague, a bit theoretical, but it has real consequences. It means reevaluating how much can be earned and the size of the payout. In turn, that means altering the equation of how much is worth investing. The change will not be immediate, overnight, drastic. But, good or bad, it will be a change.
That will be Abramovich’s main legacy, the lasting impact of the era that he began on what seemed like a whim and ended, in the space of a couple of weeks, in the middle of a war. The football era of the oligarchs is over. This time, there can be no excuse not to understand what the game has become. We are clear on that. Where it will go now remains in doubt.