Soccer

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown soccer powerhouse Chelsea FC’s future into limbo, with its billionaire saviour, Roman Abramovich, entangled in sanctions against his homeland. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Roman Abramovich’s crumbling web

Roman Abramovich celebrates Chelsea’s 2021 FIFA Club World Cup win.
Roman Abramovich celebrates Chelsea’s 2021 FIFA Club World Cup win.
Credit: Michael Regan / FIFA via Getty Images

Chelsea weren’t rubbish, exactly, when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, but nor were they elite. At the end of the 2001-02 English Premier League season, Chelsea finished sixth, 23 points behind the champions, Arsenal. The following season, they finished fourth. At this point, the club had not won England’s top level soccer league since 1955.

But then the young Russian oligarch arrived in town and, in the words of Arsenal’s vice-chairman, “parked his Russian tank in our front garden” and began “firing £50 notes at us”. Abramovich’s wealth seemed fantastical. There were houses all over the globe, to which he travelled on either his private jet or, incredibly, his own Boeing Dreamliner. He owned a submarine, Picassos, and then the world’s largest yacht – a freakishly ostentatious beast appointed with two helipads, a private disco and a missile-defence system.

Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea FC was largely met with excitement (or nervousness from rival clubs). He was greeted as an exotic novelty or, if you were a Chelsea fan, a saviour. But there were some objections. Tony Banks, a Labour MP, former sports minister and ardent Chelsea fan, said: “We need to look at the source of his money, what his track record has been in Russia, to establish whether he is a fit and proper person to take over a football club in this country. At the moment I don’t like it.”

The Guardian, in an editorial, was far more relaxed and chastised Banks’s piety. “Mr Banks makes taking over a football club seem like appointing a bishop … Increased international ownership of football clubs is welcome. In Chelsea’s case it is a logical progression, since most of its first team squad and all the recent coaches have been foreign.” This blithe faith in globalism, and the underestimation of the usefulness of soccer clubs to bad actors, seems quaintly naive now.

Abramovich bought the club for £60 million, though the acquisition cost more than twice that – the discrepancy owing to Chelsea’s eye-watering debt, which was considerably more than the club’s value, and attributed to profligacy in the player market and expensive developments to their stadium. But these sums were pocket change for Abramovich, and Chelsea suddenly had its own fairy godmother to banish its money troubles.

The Russian billionaire appointed Bruce Buck, an American finance lawyer who had profitably advised Abramovich’s old company, Sibneft (now Gazprom Neft), Russia’s third-largest producer of oil and since sold back to the Russian government, as chairman. His two directors, Eugene Tenenbaum and Marina Granovskaia, were both long associates of his – Granovskaia had served as his personal assistant back in the ’90s and would later enjoy successive promotions at the club. Having installed his people, Abramovich began spending.

His expenditure on players, in the European summer of 2003, had never been seen before. He spent £120 million, a figure that was almost matched again the next summer. Success was almost instant. Chelsea comfortably won the 2004-05 Premier League title, finishing 12 points clear of runners-up Arsenal after losing just one game.

Chelsea were transformed into European giants. Since 2003, the club has won 18 major trophies, including five domestic titles, five FA Cups and two European Champions League titles. They are currently European champions. In those two decades, Abramovich spent more than £2 billion on players alone.    

 

As post-Soviet Russia transitioned crudely to capitalism in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, state assets – the most profitable being energy and other natural resources – were carved up and sold to a handful of men, often in rigged bidding processes and for much less than they would have been sold in a truly competitive auction. The proceeds of some of these sales were then corruptly funnelled into Yeltsin’s re-election campaign in 1996.

The oligarchs soon enjoyed enormous power in Russia, a power that Vladimir Putin found intolerable upon becoming Russian president in 2000. He quickly and ruthlessly reasserted the state’s authority, part of which was reining in the oligarchs. Those who didn’t mutely defer to Putin and surrender all political ambitions were imprisoned, stripped of assets or compelled to flee the country. Abramovich, however, escaped Putin’s wrath. He was always loyal.

In 2005, Abramovich sold back to the Russian state his oil company – one of the world’s largest – for about $US13 billion. Ten years before he had paid just $US250 million. How much of this preposterously inflated figure Abramovich actually received is hard to tell; Kremlin finances share the same opacity as Tony Soprano’s. But two years after the sale, in 2007, Transparency International reported: “Assets are being removed from state ownership and handed over to the control of private people, property is being purchased with state money back from the oligarchs at stunning prices, a friends-of-Putin oil export monopoly is being created, and a Kremlin ‘black safe’ [slush fund] is being funded. This is a brief outline of the criminal system of government that has taken shape under Putin.”

Abramovich, usually through his well-paid proxies, has always denied his proximity to Putin. Yet a 2012 civil case brought by Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in a London court against his old business partner Abramovich, drew from the Chelsea owner the confession that he’d made corrupt payments for his assets, while the judge found him to have “privileged access” to President Putin – something confirmed by just about every journalist and historian who has made Russian oligarchs their subject. In 2010, while countries were bidding for hosting rights to the 2018 World Cup, the English Football Association sent former national captain David Beckham, Prince William and then prime minister David Cameron to Zurich to lobby soccer’s governing body, FIFA. Putin sent Abramovich.

Still, for years there were denials. “It would be ludicrous to suggest that our client has any responsibility or influence over the behaviour of the Russian state,” his lawyers said last month.

So it was hard to square this with claims made by Chelsea spokesperson Rola Brentlin only a few weeks ago that Abramovich was involved in peace talks. It was a late, desperate and spurious bid to feather his reputation as the British government prepared sanctions. The story quickly evaporated. So too did Brentlin’s Twitter account and LinkedIn page. Many people have made much money massaging Abramovich’s reputation. Brentlin is just one. Before she went to work for Chelsea, Brentlin had served tobacco giants Philip Morris for nine years as a chief spinner. “What’s the difference between a rat and a pet mouse?” Abramovich once asked. “Public relations.”

 

It had taken Putin’s invasion to animate the British government. Sanctions were coming for those Russian oligarchs with British assets, and in February Abramovich sought to pre-empt them in the hope of ultimately evading them. He announced, with no explanation, that he was transferring “care and stewardship” (but not ownership) of Chelsea to a trust. But it was not enough. The reckoning was imminent. Earlier this month, the British government froze Abramovich’s assets, including Chelsea.

And so it was that Europe’s champions were without an owner, the ability to transfer players, or the capacity to profit – they couldn’t sell game tickets or merchandise and nor would they receive any income from broadcast rights. The club could still compete, however, though Abramovich would not receive a single pound for the club’s eventual sale.

Then, incredibly, in the days before Chelsea’s FA Cup quarter-final match against Middlesbrough last week – a home game for the latter – Chelsea released this statement: “It is with extreme reluctance that we are asking the FA board to direct that the game be played behind closed doors for matters of sporting integrity.”

There was broad, outraged astonishment. Here was Chelsea, via its clan of lawyers and spin doctors, affecting the tone of reasonableness. The reality? Desperate to neutralise their disadvantage, Chelsea brazenly sought to punish their opponents by denying them their own fans. Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson was having none of it: “Chelsea and sporting integrity do not belong in the same sentence,” he told The Athletic. “Where is the intellect of Bruce Buck, the chairman of Chelsea, who has been an apologist for his owner, where the trophies won over 19 years have come from the corrupt money provided by Abramovich?”

Meanwhile, on March 14, Chelsea hosted Newcastle United – recently acquired by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Less than two days before, the country had executed 81 men in a single day – half of them Shia Muslims, a violently persecuted minority – and its campaign of terror against Yemeni citizens, aided by British weapons, continues. “We’re richer than you,” Newcastle fans sang to those opposite, which is true in only the most narrow and putrid sense.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 26, 2022 as "Roman disarray".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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