Roman Abramovich changed English football but whether it’s for better or worse is debatable
The year is 1988 and Chelsea football club have finished 18th in English football’s Division 1 table, and normally it would mean that that they would have survived. That is while Portsmouth, Watford and Oxford United were all relegated to the Second Division.
But this is a different time in English football, a time where footballers weren’t paid a king’s ransom, where oligarchs and state nations did not own clubs, and where football was the rough, tough game that many dream it was. Also, globalisation was yet to hit the world and thus the Premier League was yet to be born which meant that the rules were different. Much like the Bundesliga in the present day – with a slight tweak – the Blues would play a play-off with the teams finishing third, fourth and fifth in the Second Division.
They beat Blackburn Rovers but then lost to Middlesbrough and thus got dropped into the Second Division. It was the last time that Stamford Bridge would ever see the bottom half of the table but more importantly, it would be the last time that Chelsea football club would play in the Second Division or, as it is known now, the Championship. They played just one season in the lower division, finished as Division 2 champions and were promoted back into the top tier.
However, it was far from a rosy adventure for the Blues because after all this was Chelsea FC pre-Roman Abramovich and Jose “the Special One” Mourinho. This was Chelsea pre-back-to-back Premier League titles and pre being a consistent title threat but more them being nothing beyond a mid-table staple that occasionally yo-yoed between the First and Second Divisions.
This was also a Chelsea that went on an incredible 26-year trophy drought, although they did win the Second Division title on two occasions, between winning 1969/70 and the 1996/97 FA Cups. They did also win the Full Members' Cup twice, in 1985/86 and 1989/90, but that was a trophy that was created by English football after they were banned from European competitions following the Heysel Stadium disaster.
Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us.
It’s a different story altogether but the point is that by the time Roman Abramovich arrived in 2003 with hopes, dreams and his wish to sports-wash the world into believing things, the Blues were willing to sell their souls to the devil for success. That was despite them actually improving in the years prior to Abramovich buying the club, finishing in and around the top four between 1996/97 and 2002/03.
Plus, they won the FA Cup twice, the League Cup once, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup once, the UEFA Supercup once and the Charity Shield once in that same time period. But during that same period, Leeds United overspent and crashed out of the top tier, Newcastle United stopped competing for titles and it allowed both Arsenal and Manchester United to created a duopoly at the top.
Liverpool occasionally competed and there were others but many believed that a fourth club could enter and then stepped Roman Abramovich. Tanned, barely 35 and an uber-billionaire while also being the Governor of Chukotka, he was what dreams were made of and had a wallet that he simply loved opening season after season after season. Now nearly twenty years later and it’s all over.
Yet during that incredible time-frame, Chelsea have won everything they once did, trophies they never even came close to and trophies that never even existed at one stage with the asking price, to buy the club, now up from £140 million to around £3 billion. But while Abramovich seems to be selling not because he wants to but before the UK government seize the Blues as an asset and thus stop the 55-year-old from banking on his nearly twenty-year investment and earning more than twenty-one times his initial investment. Why?
Well because of his ties to Russia, because of his potential ties to Vladimir Putin and because the 55-year-old is currently a major stakeholder in a Russian steel company whose materials are building the tanks that are currently invading Ukraine. And yet, despite all that there’s an air of goodwill around the man because of what he has done for Chelsea even if the hate, from everyone else, seems to overshadow things.
But arguably his biggest contribution to, not just, football has to be the fact that the Russian battered the walls down and paved a road for others to follow. He brought forth the moral compass that everyone has within themselves and made them all forget about it by pumping in money to win trophies which made everyone happy. While Abramovich may not be the founder of sports-washing – as many dictators in the past used it – in football, he is at the very least the modern god-father.
Because the 55-year-old turned football into not just a thriving business but also an elite sports-washing agency for the billionaires, nation-states and everyone else. But that’s how football has evolved over the last two decades or so as cognitive dissonance stepped onto the field and it has seen fans adjust their moral compasses in order to see their clubs do well. So much so, that the outpour of joy and just emotion that someone other than Mike Ashley was going to take charge of Newcastle United was incredible.
So overjoyed were the fans of Newcastle when a Saudi Arabian consortium decided to take-over their club, indirectly but directly a vehicle for the Saudi state, despite all the issues that come with it. Yet truth be told, that had more to do with just how much the Magpies’ faithful hated Mike Ashley so much that any kind of alternative is met with applause and joy. And yet, none of that could have happened had Roman Abramovich not decided to buy Chelsea.
The former Governor of Chukotka transformed and completely changed football’s landscape without anyone even realising it.
Because while Abramovich was pumping in money by the billions and while Chelsea were winning trophy after trophy, ending the Russian’s ownership with every trophy available, the game changed. Suddenly, trophies and winning became far more important than actually creating a lasting legacy, how money automatically means success, how expectations suddenly skyrocket with the addition of mere money and how fans now want instant gratification.
Roman Abramovich, one of the most self-aware individuals ever to have worked in English football. From start to finish, he understood perfectly the seductive power of wealth, and the strategic use of silence.— Musa Okwonga (@Okwonga) March 2, 2022
Now two Premier League clubs are owned by nation-states, five by various American billionaires, one was formerly sponsored by a man who was recently sanctioned, one by a three Chinese billionaires and one has owners that use them as a bank. Now sporting success doesn’t even matter because when you’ve football clubs that are supported by millions, watched by billions and paid just about the same as PR companies, does winning anything really even matter?
Does occasionally winning the Premier League title even matter? The Champions League? The treble or quadruple or even the quintuple? Especially when you’ve got Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar earning you billions and billions in not just revenue but in social media credits, in PR and more importantly making you look very good despite all the iffy business. But somehow, even while leaving in possibly the worst way ever, Roman Abramovich has managed to make himself look good.
The forgiving of Chelsea's £1.5 billion debt, the opening of a “charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale goes to the victims of the war in Ukraine” where the language itself is iffy but on paper that's perfect. It adds to the charm and slathers another coat of veneer onto a reputation so well crafted, so finely tuned on a man that even now happens to be one of football's most mysterious figures. That's how it all works now and it has all worked rather perfectly.
So much, that the Premier League, the English FA and all those who lord over English football are mulling over potentially introducing a human rights section to its owners’ and directors’ test. That’s the impact Roman Abramovich has had. Not the two Champions Leagues crowns, the two Europa Leagues trophies, the five Premier League titles, a combined ten domestic cups and one FIFA Club World Cup that Chelsea have lifted over the last two decades.