By Matt Dickinson in THE TIMES, 3 March 2022
“Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us.”
So said David Dein, the Arsenal director, in 2003 to herald the influence of the billionaire who transformed not only Chelsea but English and European football with personal wealth that had never been countenanced in the game.
Russian tanks is how it began, and how it ends too — these ones bombarding civilians in Ukraine and making Abramovich’s position at Chelsea increasingly untenable as calls for sanctions reached parliament yesterday.
To write off £1.5 billion in loans and promise to devote net profits from the sale of Chelsea to victims of the war is an attempt to leave both at great speed and with honour — but is it too much to ask that he also condemns the bloodshed on the way out? The oligarch’s influence must count, otherwise he would not be having to hastily slap “for sale” signs on Stamford Bridge to bring an end to 19 years of ownership in which he changed so much while barely saying a word. He let money do all the talking.
So much for those who say we should keep politics out of sport. Those worlds have collided in ways that should make us all take a deep breath — the English game has had plenty of fun out of an oligarch’s billions, and we should probably feel queasy this morning about how blasé we have been all these years.
Matthew Syed has reported consistently on these pages about the provenance of that mind-boggling wealth, and its place in the Vladimir Putin kleptocracy. We have taken note, briefly, and then returned to the latest managerial hiring and firing (about £110 million only in payoffs), and big-name signing (more than £2 billion in transfer fees) and chase for a trophy (none celebrated more ecstatically than in Munich in 2012 and, finally, the Champions League).
Abramovich’s hasty withdrawal should make us ponder what we could be storing up by selling other precious football assets to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East — and, indeed, the United States, given the worst vandals in the European Super League project would have disfigured the game for ever. But do you want to hear about all that? Do we have the energy, the gumption, to care or to act? Back to the next big game!
Money seduces. I sat in a café at Stamford Bridge with a couple of directors after Abramovich bought the club from Ken Bates for about £140 million (how quaint that number sounds now!) and they were like kids looking through a Panini sticker book speculating who the boss might want to sign. Kaká? Ronaldinho? A past-it Andriy Shevchenko?
Abramovich debunked the theory that success required stable management — lurching from brilliant moves, such as recruiting José Mourinho (when he was good), to the inexplicable, like Avram Grant, and self-defeating, like sacking Carlo Ancelotti — though we can always wonder if even more trophies might have come had he not been the anti-Goldilocks, never quite finding the right temperature of coach.
Still, Chelsea had not won a league in 55 years. A club who were all Kings Road style but lacking substance suddenly became serial winners — 17 major trophies, including five Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues — with unforgettable nights at Stamford Bridge against Barcelona and all of Europe’s biggest beasts.
It was a fear that Abramovich would never stop, which led to financial fair play rules being altered by the establishment to restrict spending — the initial target was debt — but, by then, Chelsea could afford to accede, because the outsiders had become part of the global elite. Indeed, if the deal does go through, Abramovich’s last trophy was the Fifa Club World Cup. Champions of the world.
Proof, then, that a rich man can get what he wants if he throws enough money at it — though quite what Abramovich wanted is still not really clear. He wants us to believe that he was just a football fan with a passion, but could it ever be that simple?
The transformation in profile (who had heard of Abramovich before he bought Chelsea?) invited speculation that it was a means of establishing a presence in a city like London that would always be a safe haven should he fall out with Putin. So much for that.
How times change. How a week, and a war, can transform everything — though it is probably expecting too much of a sport so in thrall to money to heed any lessons. Bring on the next billionaire! Money first, questions later.