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The fall of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea empire

Chelsea Football Club staff puts up a sign reading 'no tickets available' for its next fixture at Stamford Bridge in London, England 13 March 2022. Picture: Andy Rain/EPA

Chelsea Football Club staff puts up a sign reading 'no tickets available' for its next fixture at Stamford Bridge in London, England 13 March 2022. Picture: Andy Rain/EPA

Published Mar 19, 2022


Johannesburg - The fall from grace of English football giants Chelsea Football Club could be as spectacular as their rise from English Premier League also-rans into a European superpower in the mid-2000s.

Russia’s invasion of its neighbour Ukraine has seen Chelsea’s billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich putting the Blues up for sale due to alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin, and subsequently having his English-based assets frozen by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration.

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Meanwhile, for Chelsea the pain is also palpable as the club’s bank accounts have been frozen, and ticket sales (bar season ticket holders) banned; they will not be able to sign new players nor extend the contracts of incumbent playing personnel while Abramovich, 55, is still the owner.

This has necessitated a scramble against time for the defending Uefa and Club World Cup champions to find a new owner to allow them to operate freely as they aim to continue their quest for domestic and continental sporting dominance.

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This dominance, however, would not have been possible without Abramovich’s billions.

When a then 37-year-old Abramovich rolled into London in the European summer of 2003, the West London-based Chelsea were a decent English outfit, who provided good and honest competition to the two leading lights of the English game at the time in Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and their fierce rivals Arsenal, then managed by Arsene Wenger.

Decent as Chelsea were, they were nowhere near challenging those two behemoths as they bruised and bashed each other in the battle for supremacy of the highly competitive English top flight.

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At the time of Abramovich’s arrival, Chelsea’s was a modest trophy cabinet with 15 major honours consisting of a solitary old English First Division title, two Second Division titles, three English FA Cup triumphs, two English Football League Cup titles, two European Cup Winners Cups, two titles of the defunct and short-lived English Full Members’ Cup, a Uefa Super Cup win, and two FA Community Shield successes.

In the intervening 18 years and eights months since the 2003 takeover of Chelsea from English businessman Ken Bates, the Russian oligarch handsomely financed Chelsea with a reported war chest of £1.5 billion which was spent to lure some of the world’s best footballers and coaches to Stamford Bridge.

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This is an outlay that has yielded 19 major trophies, including the prestigious Uefa Champions League on two occasions, in Munich in 2012 and in Porto last year, and most recently the Fifa Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates last month.

Although they sit comfortably third in the Premier League and are through to the Champions League quarterfinals, they face the possibility of a mass player exodus with stars such as skipper Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen seeing their contracts running out at the end of the season.

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Unable to sign new players, the Blues face dire times in the coming weeks and months.

They could also be forced to cash in on mainstays of the side such as the World Cup-winning midfield sensation N’golo Kante, while players could also take pay cuts in an attempt to get cash flow to keep the club afloat should a new owner not be found by the start of next season.

The source of Abramovich’s wealth is as common as that of most Russian oligarchs emerging from the ruins of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989.

This is a group of men who amassed copious amounts of wealth by acquiring Soviet state-owned enterprises, in the natural gas and oil industries, at dirt-cheap prices as they were buoyed by the patronage of the president of the newly formed Russia, Boris Yeltsin, when he came into power in 1991.

This would be a reign that would see him remain in power until his resignation in 1999 when he handed over the reins to Putin, reportedly on Abramovich’s recommendation.

With Abramovich among this group of richest men in Russia, the oligarchs, he and his fellow Russian “deep pockets” also had the patronage of the incoming Putin extended to them.

The English authorities have always been privy to this. When Abramovich bought Chelsea in the process of becoming the Premier League’s first truly mega-wealthy club owner, and this occurred amid much fanfare, there was no action from 10 Downing Street.

The silence of the authorities is most likely to have been due to the sale to the unassuming Abramovich serving their interests at the time as they also would have benefited from the English Premier League being seen globally as world football’s best, biggest and most attractive competition.

However, the sanctions meted out to Abramovich in recent weeks also raise questions about the moral stance of the British government’s position on the acquisition of Newcastle United Football Club by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund.

There is clearly nothing public about the fund as it is obviously another cash cow of the Saudi Royal Family whose leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, is the chairman of the fund.

The Crown Prince is accused of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, but this flew over the head of Johnson, who has been cosying up to the Saudis for oil in the wake of the Russian sanctions.

Arsenal, fresh from their 2021 renewal of their sleeve sponsorship with the Rwandan tourism brand Visit Rwanda, have not been hit with potentially crippling sanctions like Chelsea, despite widespread allegations of critics and opponents of Rwandan President Paul Kagame being murdered, imprisoned or reportedly disappearing.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also seen world football governing body Fifa and the European football governing body Uefa ban Russian national teams from all international matches, while Russian football clubs have been barred from competing in European club competitions.

This is more than likely to dissuade wealthy businessmen and potential sponsors, from around the globe, with ties to their various countries’ government leaders, from investing in sports, particularly English football.

English authorities have, in many ways, set a precedent that will now find them having to apply a microscopic lens in the vetting of any potential wealthy suitors of English sports clubs, the source of their wealth, their financial activities outside of football and who these wealthy billionaires bankroll politically.

IOL Sport

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