Friday 23 March 2018

How Abramovich has changed the face of football

As Chelsea prepare to celebrate 10 years of Roman rule, Jamie Holland charts the Russian's influence on the game

Roman Abramovich
Roman Abramovich

IT was the day that changed English football forever.

The day a secretive and largely unknown Russian businessman named Roman Abramovich took control of Chelsea and, in the words of former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, "parked his tanks on our lawn and started firing £50 notes".

The deal was done on July 1, 2003, after little more than four days of typically decisive negotiations with then Chelsea owner Ken Bates, who was allowed to keep the penthouse suite at the Chelsea hotel at Stamford Bridge as a gesture of goodwill and who used the £60m or so he pocketed to buy Leeds United.

At the time, Fulham's Mohamed Al Fayed was the only foreign owner in the Premier League.

In the decade that has followed, Abramovich has led an infusion of ambition and apparently limitless cash from Russia, America and the Middle East, which has turned the English league into the richest and most powerful on the planet. The numbers are mind-blowing.

Since Abramovich "parked his tanks", he has personally forked out around £820m, with the club having spent in the region of £874m on transfers and £1.5bn on wages.

Losses stand at an estimated £680m – a staggering figure even for a man rated the 107th richest person in the world with a $10.7bn (£6.96bn) fortune, according to the 2013 Forbes list.

They are numbers which served to skew the financial landscape in a sport which was beginning to show signs of more prudent housekeeping before Abramovich flew over west London in his private helicopter and took a fancy to real estate on the Fulham Road.

The moment Abramovich arrived with an obsession to win the Champions League, all bets were off and all transfers apparently were possible.

The previous summer Chelsea had signed one player – Enrique de Lucas, on a free transfer – then no-one in January.


The first summer under Abramovich they spent £150m, signing Glen Johnson, Alexey Smertin, Geremi, Juan Sebastian Veron, Damien Duff, Wayne Bridge, Joe Cole, Adrian Mutu, Hernan Crespo, Claude Makelele and Scott Parker.

"It was like playing fantasy football," was how former Chelsea chief executive Trevor Birch has described it.

It also challenged the order at the top of English football. Until then, Manchester United and Arsenal had dominated the Premier League, largely because of the income generated from their huge fan bases.

In Abramovich's world, the size of the crowd did not matter nearly as much as the weight of the cheque book.

Birch reportedly said: "It was the catalyst for change in English football. It forced other clubs to look for other sources of revenue and paved the way for further foreign ownership.

"Before that in England, we would sign foreign players at the tail end of their careers. Suddenly, we could sign players at the peak of their careers from Italy and Spain.

"The downside was that it created wage inflation throughout the League."

Many would question Abramovich's methods. Few, however, would argue he has not been successful.

Three Premier League titles, four FA Cup victories, two League Cups, one Champions League and one Europa League. That is the roll of honour under Abramovich – and at a club which had not won the league title since 1955.

There is another thing about Abramovich which should not be doubted: his love for the game.

Manchester City fans almost never see their club's owner Sheikh Mansour, and the Glazer family at Manchester United are infrequent visitors to Old Trafford, but Abramovich is a Stamford Bridge regular high up in the stand, musing on the manager's tactics and potential transfer dealings.

His insistence that former striker, £30m Andriy Shevchenko, should be signed and then play is said to have been the wedge which came between him and manager Jose Mourinho during the Portuguese's first spell with the club.

Time will tell whether Abramovich has mellowed and is prepared to temper his interference when Mourinho's second reign gets under way in earnest in August.

Billionaires, however, are accustomed to getting their own way and, after building Chelsea into a club worth £588m – ranked by Forbes Magazine as the seventh most valuable football club in the world – with a state-of-the-art training facility at Cobham – it is inconceivable that Abramovich will not be a back-seat driver.

Germany's Andre Schurrle has already signed from Bayer Leverkusen this summer for around £18m. More reinforcements undoubtedly will arrive as Abramovich seeks once more to rule the football world.


It is true, Chelsea have won few friends under Abramovich. Managers have been disposed of ruthlessly – Roberto Di Matteo, in particular, being sacked months after winning the Champions League.

They have not always given the impression of a club with class.

Yet the doubters who 10 years ago believed Abramovich would be 'here today and gone tomorrow' after playing his billionaire version of 'Fantasy Football' now have to concede that, in terms of success, the Russian has been good for Chelsea.

Whether, after 10 inflationary and revolutionary years, he has been good for football, is another question.

Irish Independent

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