It started in anonymity and ended in infamy. Almost nobody in football had heard of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich before he acquired Chelsea in 2003, but he became the most successful and controversial Premier League owner of the last two decades before the U.K. government forced him to sell the club because of his links with Russia president Vladimir Putin.
Abramovich spent more than £2 billion on player signings and another £90 million on hiring and firing managers as a total 13 different men across 15 different managerial spells came and went — ripping up the conventional rulebook which suggested stability in the dugout was the foundation of a lasting dynasty.
Chelsea had intermittently won silverware in the past — a solitary First Division title in 1955, the 1971 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and three FA Cups between 1970 and 2000 among them — but Abramovich transformed them into English football’s nouveau riche. Winning five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, two Champions Leagues, two Europa Leagues, two Community Shields, one Super Cup and finally the Club World Cup in February, his investment and oversight helped turn them into a powerhouse of the modern game, shattering the status quo.
Abramovich had no prior relationship with Chelsea before 2003 and it is not disputed that his wealth originated from dividends and sales of privatised assets acquired from the former Soviet Union. Fellow oligarch Boris Berezovsky sued Abramovich in 2011 for €5bn over what he claimed were ill-gotten gains from the sale of the oil firm they co-founded, Sibneft (now a subsidiary of Gazprom). Abramovich won that case in 2012, but during the trial, Jonathan Sumption QC, acting for Abramovich, admitted that the process of auctioning Sibneft “was easy to rig and was in fact rigged.”
It is argued that some of these deals helped former Russia president Boris Yeltsin win reelection in 1996 before helping to keep his successor, Putin, in power. None of this triggered any red flags within the U.K. government or the Premier League at the time of Abramovich’s takeover, although rival clubs — and later, rival leagues — began sounding alarm bells, eventually leading to UEFA introducing financial fair play (FFP) in 2010 as they attempted to curb limitless spending.
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Opposition to such largesse continued, but it was not until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 that a debate over Abramovich’s ownership took over mainstream discourse.
Decisions by the U.K. government and the European Union to sanction Abramovich for ongoing ties to Putin have asked uncomfortable questions related to football ownership and the robustness of background checks on prospective owners.
Published by the Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, the document explaining the government’s reasoning for taking action is both comprehensive and damning. After outlining their belief that Abramovich “has had a close relationship” with Putin “for decades,” it suggests a wide range of questionable activity including companies linked to Abramovich receiving tax breaks, buying and selling shares from and to the Russian state at favourable rates and the contracts received in the run-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Abramovich is accused therefore of receiving “preferential treatment and concessions from Putin and the Government of Russia,” while also being targeted for his shareholding in steel mining and manufacturing company Evraz PLC. That company is accused of supplying steel to the Russian military, which “may have been used in the production of tanks” used in the Ukraine invasion.
Continuing to own Chelsea under such suspicion was not a realistic option for Abramovich, despite a brief flirtation with the idea through a failed attempt to pass “stewardship and care” of the Blues to Chelsea’s trustees, rendering a sale inevitable. And, after a three-month process, a consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers owner Todd Boehly has now completed a £4.25bn purchase of the club. But what is the legacy left behind by Abramovich, both for Chelsea and the Premier League?
Abramovich’s impact on Chelsea
When Abramovich originally decided to buy an English team in 2003, he and his advisers drew up a five-club shortlist: Manchester United, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. A source close to Abramovich at the time told ESPN that contact was made with Spurs chairman Daniel Levy, while Arsenal informed Abramovich they were not for sale. Liverpool were ruled out and United’s asking price was thought to be too high at £500m, but Abramovich already had designs on London, not least because he already owned property in Knightsbridge, one of the most affluent parts of the city.
Chelsea were in a vulnerable state. Then-chief executive Trevor Birch told the players before their final game of the 2002-03 season that victory was essential to help the club avoid financial ruin. Denmark winger Jesper Gronkjaer scored the goal which secured a 2-1 win over Liverpool and assured Champions League qualification by finishing fourth. Six weeks later, Abramovich bought the club for £140m and immediately began spending money on top players to close the gap on Manchester United and Arsenal.
“The Gronkjaer goal is probably the most important goal in the history of Chelsea,” Kieran Maguire, author of “The Price of Football”, told ESPN. “Whether Abramovich would have bought the club without Champions League football is the question but that certainly helped seal the deal. The total spending in the Premier League in 2002-03 was £187m. In 2003-04, it doubled to £390m. It never dipped back down to those levels after. Abramovich was a contributory factor not only to the increase in player purchases but it helped the acceleration of wages as well.”
Chelsea spent £113m in Abramovich’s first summer on 10 players largely of a greater calibre and prestige than the club were accustomed to, including Juan Sebastian Veron, Damien Duff and Claude Makelele. The manager Abramovich inherited, Claudio Ranieri, was dispensed with after a year and replaced by FC Porto’s rising star Jose Mourinho, who won the title in his first two seasons, seizing on the wider disgruntlement at Chelsea’s newfound wealth to create a fearless siege mentality that would form the bedrock of future successes.
A 2005 report from financial experts Deloitte analysing Abramovich’s first full year at Chelsea stated the club’s wage bill had skyrocketed 110% to £114.8m, a figure the firm claimed was “almost certainly” the highest in world football at the time. That same season, the other 19 top-flight English clubs combined spent less on player salaries than they did the previous year.
“Abramovich showed that you could be a disruptor to the existing duopoly of United and Arsenal through spending money, investing in both managers and players,” Maguire said. “And also that could result in payback almost immediately because they started to win trophies. To a certain extent, that opened the eyes of other potential investors who saw the glamour of the Premier League and realised they could perhaps do similar.”
Although Abramovich had no particular affinity with Chelsea and pursued a policy of almost never giving media interviews, fans quickly grew to love him. David Johnstone has been a supporter since the 1970s and is editor of the fanzine “cfcuk.” He told ESPN: “I was down at Stamford Bridge a couple of days after he bought the club. One of his security guys was outside the main office entrance. I asked him if I could wait and meet the owner. He said ‘Yes, but whatever you do don’t make any sudden movements.’
“Mr Abramovich came out. He was with [long-time associate and Chelsea board member] Eugene Tenenbaum. I started rattling off my CV — the guy who does the Chelsea fanzine, I ran on the pitch and bowed down and kissed Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola’s feet.
“Eugene was translating every word. I said ‘I sued [former Chelsea owner] Ken Bates for libel, and beat him.’ Eugene stopped translating and said ‘I want your number.’ Mr Abramovich took to me. He was kind to listen to me for a 40-minute meeting with him in his boardroom, I told him what I thought he should do with the club. I’ve met him maybe 50 times, never been excluded from his company, I’ve drunk with him abroad. He’s a fantastic guy. Everybody close to him who works for him is as devastated about what has happened as I am.”
That sentiment permeated through a fanbase which went on to enjoy unparalleled success, completing the set of every trophy Chelsea could possibly win. But Abramovich’s sanctioning left fans in precarious position over their support. They were criticised for singing his name at matches and many feel denied of one last goodbye to a benefactor who, while controversial to the rest, has enabled them to live their sporting dreams.
Johnstone had planned a 100ft by 50ft banner for the club’s final game of the season against Watford which read: “Thank You, Mr Abramovich, Because of You, We Won it All.” However, it was pulled at the last moment amid concerns from senior figures at the club that it could jeopardise the sale. “The phrase used was ‘negotiations are a very delicate stage’,” Johnstone said. “What I’d like to do is have that going out on the first game of next season with another saying good luck to the new owners.”
Russian money influx
Abramovich’s legal team had for years strongly refuted any suggestion of existing links to Putin and batted away questions about the source of his wealth. Successive British governments welcomed Russian investment into the country, particularly London, where swathes of the capital’s most luxurious homes were bought up by oligarchs and businessman. Transparency International estimated in February that since 2016 alone, £1.5bn of property have been purchased by Russians accused of corruption or having links to the Kremlin.
The government largely paid lip service to the idea of clamping down on the flow of questionably sourced income until 2018. Following an escalation in tensions between Russia and the West over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, a number of investor visas for prominent Russians were not renewed. Abramovich’s was among them, although his spokesperson claimed at the time Abramovich had simply withdrawn his application.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year forced a wholesale rethink in Britain over this relationship and in turn emboldened Abramovich’s critics, many of whom had been cowed into silence. In the context of Chelsea, Abramovich did not help matters by being slow to condemn the war, not mentioning it at all in his Feb. 26 statement in which he tried to distance himself from the club while retaining ownership, passing “stewardship and care” to the Chelsea Trustees.
Sources have told ESPN that the Trustees, primarily a charitable entity comprising prominent public figures possessing a longstanding relationship with the club, were not given warning of Abramovich’s announcement and after seeking legal advice, they quickly came to the conclusion that running one of the biggest clubs in world football was utterly unworkable. And so, a second statement followed three days later, in which Abramovich confirmed he would sell the club and donate the proceeds to victims of the war in Ukraine. As political pressure intensified, it transpired this would not be his call as the U.K government sanctioned Abramovich, preventing him from benefiting financially from any asset and describing him as “one of the few oligarchs from the 1990s to maintain prominence under Putin.”
Widespread condemnation of Abramovich, and by association, Chelsea, followed during the sale process organised by New York-based merchant bank Raine Group while the club played out the season operating under a special licence which prevented new ticket sales, forced the closure of the club shop and hotel, halted contract negotiations with existing players and stopped them from buying any new ones.
Any fair assessment of Abramovich’s contribution to Chelsea should include the community work he has driven behind the scenes. Sources have told ESPN that Abramovich has been personally involved in driving the club’s anti-Semitism campaign, while he also made a sizeable donation to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to fund a Holocaust exhibition.
Chelsea have been widely praised for the charity work while the club offered NHS staff free use of the club’s Millennium Hotel at Stamford Bridge during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Abramovich kept staff on full pay rather than using the government’s furlough scheme, as some other Premier League clubs — including Tottenham and Liverpool — chose to.
Yet on the same day the Imperial War Museum hosted an event for him in recognition of his contribution, Russia’s war on Ukraine began. Abramovich was quickly ostracised and his partnership with the IWM suspended, as it was with world Holocaust remembrance centre Yad Vashem.
The sale proceeds
Controversy followed Abramovich to the very end. One of the final sticking points in the sale was what would happen to the proceeds. The Boehly-led bid is broken down into a £2.5bn sale price with a commitment to invest a further £1.75bn over the next decade. The U.K. government was adamant the £2.5bn had to be held in escrow and subsequently distributed to victims of the war in Ukraine. Abramovich’s representatives have publicly repeated claims he has never sought repayment of the £1.6bn loan owed to him by Chelsea’s parent company.
However, sources at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have indicated Abramovich did explore the possibility of using a holding company of his choosing. DCMS feared that could lead to money finding a way back to Abramovich and refused to countenance such an agreement.
Yet, in his parting statement last weekend, Abramovich sought to paint the charitable contribution as one final act in 19 years of altruism. “It has been an honour of a lifetime to be a part of this club — I would like to thank all the club’s past and current players, staff, and of course fans for these incredible years,” he said. “I am proud that as a result of our joint successes, millions of people will now benefit from the new charitable foundation which is being established. This is the legacy which we have created together.”
Gab & Juls debate where Chelsea need to improve if they are to compete with Liverpool and Man City next season.
Abramovich’s impact on the Premier League
In 2003, Manchester United and Arsenal had won 10 out of 11 titles between them since the Premier League’s inception in 1992 and had already seen off another big spender briefly threatening their duopoly.
Industrial businessman Jack Walker used the proceeds of selling his family’s sheet metal business to buy his boyhood club, Blackburn Rovers, taking full control in 1991. Walker spent aggressively: Blackburn hired former Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish as manager, earning promotion from the Second Division a year later before breaking the British transfer record to sign striker Alan Shearer for £3.6m. Blackburn went on to win the Premier League in 1995, but that success did not last; Walker died in 2000, his family gradually withdrew funding and the club fell down the divisions as low as League One before stabilising in the Championship, where they are today.
Arsenal and United founded their financial success in the conventional way at the time: broadcast income, matchday revenue and commercial activity were the key drivers to growth, fuelling investment in the squad. Chelsea shattered this financial sensibility almost overnight.
“Under Abramovich, Chelsea lost over £900,000-a-week every week for 19 years,” Maguire said. “That disrupted the normal business model as before that, it was ticket sales, broadcasting — which was outside the control of individual clubs — and commercial deals. All of a sudden you have benefactor owners coming in and pumping in from another source. What the likes of Abramovich did was they made the existing elite conscious that their broad monopoly could be challenged and there could be people not only coming into the Premier League itself but potentially if someone came into Bilbao in Spain or Hamburg in Germany — that could take away the expectations that some clubs in those countries had about being trophy winners and qualifying for the Champions League, making progress every season.”
Financial fair play
Seven years after Abramovich’s arrival, UEFA approved the introduction of financial fair play, a system designed to block teams from taking a shortcut to Europe’s top table, restricting wages as a percentage of expenditure and capping losses over a multiyear period. But by 2010, Sheikh Mansour had already bought Manchester City in an attempt to replicate Chelsea’s progress, and the sheer scale of the Premier League’s television income meant many clubs still enjoyed greater flexibility than their European rivals.
“The rationale behind the introduction of FFP was [that it was] there to limit spending,” Maguire said. “It is not there to limit debt or deal with cash flow — which are actually the causes of clubs going bust — so I think the Abramovich factor is definitely linked [to it].”
Abramovich’s approach was in many senses a nightmare for other owners because he bankrolled success independently, absorbed short-term financial pain in the pursuit of success and, crucially, attended matches with a regularity not replicated by, say, the Kroenkes at Arsenal or the Glazer family at Manchester United, prior to his visa being withdrawn in 2018.
United’s takeover was a leveraged buyout that loaded debt onto the club. When the Kroenkes bought out second majority shareholder Alisher Usmanov in 2018, they borrowed £557m to do so, although insisting at the time the club would not be responsible for the debt.
Abramovich, worth an estimated $12.5bn today by Bloomberg, had no such concerns. But Chelsea struggled to wean themselves off a reliance on his investment. Problems with the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge curtailed the club’s efforts to expand — Maguire estimates Chelsea make around £70m in ticket sales while Tottenham could top £120m next year having qualified for the Champions League — and as recently as December, the club’s year-end accounts showed a pandemic-influenced loss of £145.6m. Chelsea said at the time they were reliant on Fordstam Limited, the parent company owned by Abramovich which the club owed £1.6bn, “for the foreseeable future.” Little did they know.
The debate over the origins of Abramovich’s wealth has also triggered wider conversations over whether the Premier League should be more stringent about background checks on new owners. Newcastle United’s 2021 takeover financed by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia came under renewed scrutiny as a result and the government is moving to appoint an independent regulator in football with far-reaching, but as yet undefined, powers.
The DCMS’s direct role in advising on the Chelsea sale could provide useful experience moving forward if the game’s governing bodies are serious about implementing a more robust Owners’ and Directors’ Test to prevent dubiously sourced money from entering the game and limiting monetary mismanagement.
What is Abramovich’s legacy now?
Abramovich had a seismic effect on English football. His relentless pursuit of glory financed by the most aggressive financial method available stood at the vanguard of the Premier League’s growth. It forced others to reinvest money the league was generating through broadcast rights into better players, changing their business models to factor in greater risk for better or worse.
There is much navel-gazing now over where the money was coming from. Putin’s war has asked difficult questions of everybody, ranging from how we power our homes because of Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas, to the morality behind the sport we enjoy. There is a World Cup in Qatar later this year which will prompt similar introspection.
Abramovich ends his time as Chelsea owner in exile, alienated by a world that believes Russia and its oligarchs had suspect motives all along.
But in determining whether Abramovich should be viewed as a Putin acolyte whose money corrupted English football in the eyes of many or an aspirational benefactor enabling one set of supporters to live out their dreams within the rules of the day, the answer might well be both.