The endgame of the oligarch who owns Chelsea
On March 10, the fifteenth day of the war in Ukraine, the British government imposed sanctions on Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner of Chelsea Football Club, the reigning European and world champion in club football. According to the sanctions list, “Abramovich is associated with a person who is or has been involved in the destabilization of Ukraine and undermines and threatens the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin. , with whom Abramovich has had a close relationship for decades.”
Chelsea is Abramovich’s most well-known asset, ahead of his super yachts, the Kensington mansion and his 29% stake in Evraz, a mining and steel company which the British government says could have supplied the Russian military and whose board of directors included, until recently, a former private secretary to Prince Charles. (Evraz claims to have only sold steel to Russia’s “infrastructure and construction sectors”.) At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home stadium in west London, the merchandise store has closed and logged out. The club’s credit cards have been suspended. Ticket sales have ceased. The government gave Chelsea a special license to play their schedule for the rest of the season, so as not to spoil competitions for other teams, but capped their travel and match-making expenses at twenty thousand pounds and nine hundred thousand pounds per game, respectively.
Three days later, Chelsea played their first home game under sanctions. Graffiti that had appeared on building hoardings outside the ground – “EUROPE FUNDS THE WAR – NOT THE CFC” and “LEAVE OUR CLUB ALONE” – had been painted over. By a quirk of schedule, Chelsea were playing Newcastle United, a much-loved and chronically underperforming club in the northeast, which was recently acquired by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
The chairman of the Saudi Public Investment Fund is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, also known as MBS. English Premier League rules contain a seven-page ‘Owner and Manager’s Test’ to weed out questionable operators in the sport, but the regulations do not include clauses on liability for hundreds of civilians killed in airstrikes in the Yemen, the oppression of women or the murder of journalists. The sale of Newcastle, for three hundred and five million pounds, was concluded last October. (The Saudi fund has a ninety percent stake.) If you think sports and politics shouldn’t mix, you need to find another sport. The day before the game between Chelsea and Newcastle, Saudi prison officials carried out a mass execution of eighty-one people. State television said the dead had “followed in Satan’s footsteps”. Before kick-off, a column of Newcastle fans, a few beers, swung down Fulham Road, taunting Chelsea fans about their oligarch’s sudden cash flow problems. “Where did your money go? Where did your money go? they sang, to the tune of “Chirpy Chirpy, Cheep Cheep (Where’s Your Mama Gone?)”.
For most Brits, Abramovich is the original oligarch: shy, moon-faced, stubble-dusted and staring at you from the pages of one tabloid or another. Since the summer of 2003, when he bought Chelsea, he has loaned the club around £1.5billion, transforming them from a vaguely fashionable occasional contender into an impressive Championship-winning side. During Abramovich’s ownership, the men’s Chelsea team won twenty-one major trophies – tied with Manchester United for the most in the league. Abramovich paved the way for other foreign owners in the EPL In June 2007 Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed prime minister of Thailand, bought Manchester City, for eighty-one million pounds, and turned the club over , a year later, to its current owner. , Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, of Abu Dhabi.
Abramovich also did the other oligarch things in London: He divorced his wives, bought expensive art and sued journalists who questioned the source of his wealth or alleged he bought Chelsea on orders from the Kremlin, which he always refused. In a 2012 court case, Abramovich admitted that he paid his former business partner, Boris Berezovsky, to provide krysha, literally “roof” – that is, political and even physical protection – when Abramovich acquired his fortune, in the 1990s. According to his lawyer, “Mr. Abramovich was aware of this corruption, but maintained that the reality was that this was how business was done in Russia at that time”. One oligarch thing Abramovich didn’t do was end up dead; Berezovsky died in 2013, an apparent suicide.
Abramovich gave only a handful of interviews to the British press. In his first, with the FinancialTimes, in 2003, he declared that he did not really want to go into the details of how he acquired his fortune: “It cries over spilled milk. But he loved England. “It’s nice to be here, you feel comfortable and you don’t feel like people are watching you,” he says. “I’m sure people will focus on me for three or four days but that will pass. They’ll forget who I am, and I like that.
The guy sitting next to me at Stamford Bridge on Sunday was in his early thirties: shaved head, name Joe. He was twelve when Abramovich bought the club. “Russian money has been poisoning this country for twenty years, and we have kind of turned a blind eye,” he said. His friend, who wore a T-shirt from Aquascutum, a London fashion brand popular among football ‘casuals’ – hardcore fans, let’s say – thought the sanctions were a media gimmick, a witch hunt. The previous weekend he had visited the Burnley FC stadium to see Chelsea play and had been taunted by the home side’s supporters. “We take shit for being Chelsea fans,” he said. “We did not invade Ukraine.” Both men believed Abramovich had come to really like the club. They could tell by the way he celebrated goals when he came to watch games, even though he celebrated like a wimp.
Since the invasion, Britain has entered into a process of grief and negotiation with its intimate two-decade history of serving Russian oligarchs. Chelsea fans had their own partisan version of the experience: a mixture of defiance and shame; a sense of dislocation from something they were proud of until very recently. Chelsea Football Club was founded on March 10, 1905. Since the First World War, British veterans have been housed in apartments next to the ground. Abramovich, who has not condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, has felt a threat to his assets for some time. In 2018, after the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer who had moved to the English cathedral city of Salisbury, with Novichok, a chemical weapon, Abramovich’s visa was not renewed. (The ruling in the 2012 court case found that “Mr. Abramovich had privileged access to President Putin.”) Two days after the invasion, Abramovich ceded control of the club to his charitable foundation, in an attempt apparent to stay ahead of sanctions. Then he put Chelsea, along with his one hundred and fifty million pound mansion behind Kensington Palace, up for sale. But the war went faster than his plans.