The story goes that Roman Abramovich decided to buy a football club after watching Manchester United beat Real Madrid 4-3 in a sizzling Champions League game at Old Trafford. Like many stories about Abramovich, nobody really knows whether it’s true or not. For most of the 19 years he has owned Chelsea, his intentions and motivations have remained thoroughly opaque – a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a terrifying convoy of lawyers.
Certainly, this story would fit with the official narrative, in which Abramovich’s multi-billion-pound investment in Chelsea was prompted by nothing more than a love of football and a thirst for thrills. The Abramovich camp has always strongly denied any suggestion that his purchase was politically motivated, or even undertaken at the behest of Vladimir Putin. Announcing his intention to sell Chelsea on 2 March, he insisted it “has never been about business nor money for me, but about pure passion for the game and club”.
Initially, of course, Abramovich was none too fussed about which club would benefit from the largesse he had accrued from harnessing the chaotic early waves of Yeltsin-era Russian capitalism. He had considered buying Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur before eventually alighting on Chelsea. Still, he was welcomed by fans as one of their own, particularly after a spectacular first transfer window in which some of the world’s greatest attacking players – Arjen Robben, Hernán Crespo, Joe Cole, Juan Sebastián Verón – arrived in west London. “We’re f***ing loaded,” Chelsea fans would sing at Premier League matches, and to this day they continue to serenade Abramovich for the unprecedented era of success that has brought them two Champions Leagues and 17 other major trophies.
These days, Abramovich is largely an absentee owner, in self-exile from London after encountering visa issues in 2018. So it’s easy to forget how active he was in his early years at the club. When Chelsea won their first Premier League title in 2005, he was showered with champagne on the pitch by jubilant players. He would arrive unannounced at youth team games. He would take a personal interest in footballing strategy. Once, after a Champions League game against Rosenborg, he marched into the dressing room to berate midfielder Michael Essien for making too many passes through the centre. An outraged José Mourinho left as manager soon afterwards.
Abramovich’s vision of footballing perfection never really came to pass. Yes, Chelsea won things. Yes, they often played with style. But paradoxically they rarely did so at the same time. Their two Champions Leagues were won through tight, counter-attacking defence. Their best teams have been begrudgingly admired rather than genuinely appreciated. “When I watch Chelsea, I’m not able to find an identity,” Abramovich moaned to his manager Carlo Ancelotti in 2009, and as a fifth consecutive season without a Premier League title challenge beckons, it is arguably a problem that has never been solved.
Did Abramovich fail, then? On his own terms, he probably did. His money – more than £2bn in transfer spending and salaries, by some accounts – bought silverware but not stability, respect but not reverence. His plans to build a glittering new stadium on the site of Stamford Bridge have stalled. The club’s most recent accounts show that it is losing £12m a month. Meanwhile, the same fans who have been chanting his name for almost two decades have been rewarded with among the priciest tickets in the Premier League – up to £95 for big games.
Chelsea and Abramovich locked each other into a kind of Faustian pact. For Chelsea, Abramovich offered survival and sustainability, trophies and clout. For Abramovich, Chelsea offered prestige and protection, a route into the British establishment, a visibility that shielded him from the sort of political reprisals that were visited on so many of his fellow oligarchs. It is ironic that this visibility has now made him such a target.
Today that pact is on the brink of collapse. And as both Abramovich and Chelsea blink into an uncertain future, as buyers circle the club and Abramovich braces himself against the many politicians and public figures calling for sanctions to be imposed on Russian enterprise, we can see that the whole structure was built on sand all along. Private capital in Putin’s Russia, for all its grandiosity and implied power, has always been dazzlingly fragile – a great munificence that can be whipped away in an instant. Many of Abramovich’s contemporaries, like his late former business partner Boris Berezovsky, found that out the hard way.
The title of Peter Pomerantsev’s book about Putin’s Russia – Nothing Is True and Everything is Possible – perfectly encapsulates the Chelsea that Abramovich built. A dreamscape of riotous colour and voracious ambition that felt surreal because it was in fact not real; a mesh of whims and understandings, only ever as authentic as the billions that funded it. And apart from a few dissenting voices and courageous journalists, nobody asked too many questions, mainly because they didn’t want to know the answers. In this respect, the tale of Chelsea serves as a parable of English football as a whole.
This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror