There had been much speculation as to whether or not it would happen, but on Thursday 10th March 2022, the British government took the decision to sanction Chelseaâ€™s Russian owner Roman Abramovich based on his links with President Vladimir Putin, and his war on Ukraine.
The most visible and immediate of the sanctions impacted on Chelsea. Prior to the announcement of the sanctions, Abramovich had put Chelsea up for sale, written-off the Â£1.5billion owed to him by the club, and handed over day-to-day running to the clubâ€™s charitable trust, though they werenâ€™t able to accept this in the first instance. The sanctions saw the clubâ€™s bank account and credit cards frozen and prevented them from selling tickets and merchandise. The governmentâ€™s decision also meant that the club could not be sold â€“ though there has been a rowing back on this â€“ and that Abramovich would not be able to benefit when it eventually does change hands. Two days after the governmentâ€™s announcement, the Premier League disqualified Abramovich from being a director of a Premier League club.
Putinâ€™s war in Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions on Russian businesses and oligarchs has effectively brough the curtain down on the Chelski era.
Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea from Ken Bates in July 2003 for a reported Â£140million, and there were immediate concerns about what this may mean for the club and English football. Sergei Pugachev, a friend of Putin and former member of his inner circle claimed that the acquisition of Chelsea was instigated by the Russian President and the Kremlin, claiming that â€œPutin personally told me of his plan to acquire the Chelsea Football Club in order to increase his influence and raise Russiaâ€™s profile, not only with the elite but with ordinary British people”, something that Abramovich denies. Instead, in an interview with the BBC following his takeover, he said â€œI donâ€™t want to throw my money away but itâ€™s really about having fun and that means success and trophiesâ€.
And he began throwing money around the minute he got his feet under his desk at Stamford Bridge, handing manager Claudio Ranieri and enormous Â£100million transfer budget. However, the popular Ranieri failed to deliver silverware and was shown the door the following summer, Abramovich quickly demonstrating his ruthless nature and penchant for making changes regardless of performance or personality, something which was to characterise his time at Chelsea.
Abramovich moved quickly to replace Ranieri, going international to bring in then bright young thing JosÃ© Mourinho from Porto where heâ€™d won a pile of trophies including both the UEFA Cup, and the title that Abramovich craved the most, the Champions League.
Once again, Abramovich signed the cheques as Mourinho brought in the likes of Ricardo Carvalho and Didier Drogba, and alongside players that pre-dated the arrival of Abramovich â€“ John Terry, Frank Lampard â€“ Mourinho delivered silverware in a big way, winning back-to-back Premier League titles, the FA Cup, and two League Cups. But the clubâ€™s performances in Europe werenâ€™t of the same standard, and Abramovich fired Mourinho after a slow start to the 2007/08 campaign, replacing him with Avram Grant who led the club to its first ever Champions League final where they were beaten â€“ in Moscow â€“ on penalties by Manchester United.
The managerial upheaval continued as the likes of Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, AndrÃ© Villas-Boas, Rafa BenÃtez, and latterly Antonio Conte, and Frank Lampard, all came and went. But the heavy spending and footballing success continued. In almost twenty years at Stamford Bridge, Abramovich may have employed fifteen managers â€“ sixteen if you count Steve Holland â€“ but during the same period, the club has landed five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, two Community Shields, the Champions League twice, two Europa Leagues, and most recently the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.
Abramovich may have been ruthless, but his methods were efficient and effective.
And at the same time itâ€™s also fair to say that he changed the face of English football. Yes, prior to Abramovichâ€™s arrival at Stamford Bridge, there had been wealthy individuals buying English football clubs and throwing money at them in a bid to buy success â€“ think Sir Jack Walker at Blackburn, and Sir John Hall at Newcastle â€“ but Abramovich at Chelsea were on another level completely, and like it or not â€“ and Chelsea fans clearly donâ€™t â€“ it was a geopolitical manoeuvre, paving the way for the likes of the Abu Dhabi United group at Manchester City and the Public Investment Fund at Newcastle United, while also providing a model for Qatar Sports Investments at Paris Saint-Germain.
Looking at it purely from a footballing perspective, Abramovich was a disruptor and an innovator.
But was that really Abramovichâ€™s mission at Chelsea? To use his wealth to have fun, to win trophies. To build a dynasty. The truth is far more complicated.
Evidence points to it being more of a move in a game of political chess â€“ hence Pugachevâ€™s fairly explicit comments â€“ while the question of how Abramovich acquired his wealth is another difficult one that many have dodged over the years, again despite there being plenty of illuminating evidence out there.
In the West, Abramovich is obviously best known as the owner and financier of Chelsea. But he is also the former governor of Chukotka in the Russian far east, and a personal confidante â€“ and former son-in-law â€“ of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, and of course, Vladimir Putin. Abramovich interviewed each member of Putinâ€™s first cabinet in 1999 before their appointment and advised on their suitability.
As well as being politically well-connected, Abramovich has been a highly controversial figure and been embroiled in allegations of bribery and loan fraud amongst other things, not that such controversies have been a concern to Putin and his colleagues. One such case ended up in Londonâ€™s High Court of Justice in 2011, when former business partner Boris Berezovsky accused Abramovich of blackmail, breach of trust and breach of contract, and sought more than Â£3billion in damages. The case unveiled evidence of Abramovichâ€™s involvement in illegal business activities, which The Times reported on, with papers showing that Abramovich had admitted to paying billions of dollars for political favours and protection fees.
The court case revealed that Abramovich was seeking to legitimise some of his business interests, and it is possible that part of his strategy was the acquisition of Chelsea with the backing of Putin. Abramovich won the case, and it is perhaps notable that he won it with the support of Vladimir Putin.
Abramovic established a high-profile in and around London following his acquisition of Chelsea in 2003. During Abramovicâ€™s tenure, the club has enjoyed the most successful spell in its history, and as a result, there have been few displays of dissent from the clubâ€™s support â€“ indeed, the opposite has been the case â€“ and as a result, Abramovic and his circle began to grow their influence, and when the 2008 Financial Crisis blitzed the UK economy, exposing the Westâ€™s over-reliance on big finance to drive their economies, Putin saw this as a big opportunity to further grow Russian influence within London and the UK. In May of 2008, Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, and part of his message was that London was open for business, and from 2010 onwards, Russian money began to flood into London and the Conservative Party. Indeed, it could be argued that this Russian money helped to rejuvenate the capitalâ€™s economy in the wake of the financial crisis.
The soft power and influence that Abramovichâ€™s ownership of Chelsea provided enabled access into political circles in London, and from around 2010, Russians began to donate heavily to the Conservative Party, and in 2012, political strategist Matthew Elliott â€“ central to the â€˜opaquely fundedâ€™ Tufton Street crowd and who ran the Vote Leave campaign with Dominic Cummings who has his own Russian links â€“ helped to form Conservative Friends of Russia (which became Westminster Russia Forum, now wound up following the outbreak of war in the Ukraine), which was launched at the Russian Embassy. An example of how Russian money started to flow to the Conservative Party is illustrated by the case of Alexander Temerko â€“ ironically born in the Ukraine â€“ a former Russian arms dealer who â€“ from 2011 to 2019 â€“ donated more than Â£1million to the Conservatives, describes Boris Johnson as a â€œfriendâ€, and backed the Vote Leave campaign. And this is very much the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Putinâ€™s goal for many years â€“ perhaps with a view to his expansion plans for Russia â€“ was to destabilise the European Union, and he has always viewed the UK as one of the most powerful of the EU nations and the one most susceptible to disruption, and following the Russian influx into London, he exploited the Eurosceptic prejudices of certain politicians ruthlessly. As Alexander Yakovenko, former Russian Ambassador to the UK, has said, â€œwe have crushed the British to the ground. They are on their knees and they will not rise for a very long timeâ€. We are now outside of the European Union whilst war rages on the eastern fringes of the continent.
The dots are all there â€“ and Abramovich is one of them â€“ people need to start joining them up.
So what will the future mean for Chelsea? They clearly have some short-term challenges thanks to the government-imposed sanctions, but they should come out of this intact.
As part of the sanctions, the government determined that the club was a â€˜cultural assetâ€™, and as such, they clearly will not allow it to fail. This has been reflected by the fact that they are now allowing the sale of the club to proceed.
To date, there has been much interest expressed in the acquisition of the club â€“ there are hundreds of interested parties if reports are to be believed â€“ which well there might be given that Abramovich has written-off the Â£1.5billion owed to him, meaning that the club has no meaningful debt.
From a footballing perspective, Chelsea are still competing at the top-end of the Premier League, are still in the FA Cup and the Champions League. They have a very talented and valuable squad of players, and one of the brightest young managers in the game in Thomas Tuchel, who has said that he sees no reason to depart the club.
And although itâ€™s proven difficult so far, the clubâ€™s support, though still loyal to Abramovich â€“ read the room, eh? â€“ will probably come to accept that it is the end of an era, and so long as the transition is a smooth one, can probably look forward to continued success on the pitch. Chelsea, as an institution, should come out intact.
But just as the coming of Roman Abramovich changed the face of English football, perhaps his departure should also usher in a new era? Much has been made of sportswashing and the geopolitical nature of the ownership regimes of some football clubs, and maybe the gameâ€™s governing bodies need to be taking a look at the bigger picture when it comes to who takes stewardship of our football clubs.
Fit and proper isnâ€™t a concept that should be applied to the small time cowboys that go after those further down the food chain. Itâ€™s also one that should be applied to the billionaire political class.
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