Roman Abramovich: The oligarch owner who bought a football club and changed the sport forever

Roman Abramovich leaves a complicated legacy at Chelsea (Getty Images)
Roman Abramovich leaves a complicated legacy at Chelsea (Getty Images)

After years of silence, Roman Abramovich has now issued a pair of statements in a matter of days, both very different in content and tone to what came before. That is quite a turnaround for a pointedly quiet man whose few known qualities were his “steel will”.

A figure used to shaping everything around him has been subject to forces beyond his control. The pending sale of Chelsea could well see Abramovich fall away from football altogether.

His place in the game’s history is certain, though, even if the actual merits of that are open to considerable debate. The latter question is now inseparable from the much more serious questions of how Abramovich earned his money, and his exact relationship to the Russian state and Vladimir Putin. It does affect the perception of those 19 years at Stamford Bridge.

It doesn’t change one fundamental truth. Abramovich is one of the most influential figures in football history, precisely for how he reshaped the sport. The game had never seen anything like it before, but his takeover has affected everything since.

Without Abramovich, there might have been no Abu Dhabi takeover of Manchester City, no Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle United and perhaps even no Glazer takeover of Manchester United.

His arrival at Chelsea, to use the words of one prominent football source who has worked with him, “moved the dial on football ownership”. Abramovich’s influence on the game is so profound that it’s now hard to even visualise what it was like before he came to Stamford Bridge.

At the end of that 2002-03 season, 19 of the 20 Premier League clubs had British ownership. The only one that didn’t was Fulham, whose Egyptian-born owner had lived in London for four decades and had long craved citizenship. Mohammed al-Fayed was as much the furniture of English life as that sold by his other London institution, Harrods department store.

The Premier League wasn’t quite shopping at that sort of level in the transfer market. It was more John Lewis, if that. Only Manchester United were really getting close to the fees paid by the continental super clubs, with their 2002 signing of Rio Ferdinand still the British transfer record at just under £30m. Barely any other deals had got within a few million of that around the period. Even the summer of 2003, affected by the collapse of ITV Digital, had been relatively frugal. Tottenham Hotspur spent £8.25m on Porto’s Helder Postiga, United paid £6.5m for Eric Djemba-Djemba. A different City were meanwhile bringing in Michael Tarnat and David Seaman - both well past 30 - on free transfers. David Beckham’s £25m sale to Real Madrid seemed to reflect the true hierarchy of the market.

That all changed on 1 July 2003. Abramovich bought Chelsea and, within three weeks, was seemingly buying half of Europe.

Glen Johnson’s £6m purchase from West Ham United was the first of 14 signings that took the spending in that first summer to £110m. The game was astounded. It was like something out of a computer game. Anything seemed possible and yet it was scarcely believable, until Abramovich repeated the level of spending the next year. A further £90m was spent on nine players, as well as one bright young manager in Jose Mourinho.

This was football’s new reality and it changed life for everyone else, dramatically, to paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson’s own quote about his Manchester United. The football bully was bullied, while Arsenal were just beaten down as a force. It is symbolic that the Gunners have not won a title since Chelsea won their first with Abramovich’s money. The status quo was violently changed, in a more abrupt way than had ever been seen. Arsenal were basically replaced, or usurped, as a force. Chelsea were the ones always there now, the money keeping them consistently competitive even when they faced new challenges of their own. The return of five league titles, two Champions Leagues, two Europa Leagues, five FA Cups, three League Cups and a Club World Cup are testament to that. They won it all was the refrain. They changed it all. Abramovich’s Chelsea were really football’s first great disruptors, displaying a different way a club could win. All previous winning sides, right up to the Manchester United super-corporation, had evolved over time. There was no need for that Chelsea. They just imported victory. Win rates and points returns shot up. Levels were raised, horizons were broadened.

This had two major effects, neither of which were particularly good for football as a whole, one of which ended up being rather mixed for Chelsea. The first was how it really stretched football’s financial gaps to unbridgeable levels for the first time. Positions started to get fixed to economic potential, and how much you could spend. The “big four” was created, soon to become the “big six”.

This was the second major effect, and is probably the furthest-reaching. Since we still don’t know Abramovich’s true motivations for buying Chelsea outside of childishly simplistic statements like “having fun”, we can’t say for certain whether he had perceptively realised the immense social and political capital of football clubs.

Chelsea’s success, however, ensured others did. When a negotiation party representing Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour were interested in buying Manchester City, former chief executive Garry Cook told them the following. “Nobody had ever heard of Roman Abramovich until be bought Chelsea Football Club,” Cook began. “If you’re developing your nation and you’re looking to be on a global stage, we are your proxy brand for the nation.”

Abramovich purchased Chelsea in 2003 (Getty Images)
Abramovich purchased Chelsea in 2003 (Getty Images)

Amanda Staveley was one of the individuals listening and didn’t forget it. The exact same thinking informed her involvement in Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United.

Abramovich may have initially only increased the number of nationalities among Premier League owners by one, but it had a multiplying effect, both for owners and the game. Clubs became much bigger businesses, with much greater international profile. A wider variety of international investors were alerted to the opportunities in the Premier League, be they financial or political. There are now only three English majority owners in the Premier League. Soon, United were taken over by the Glazers, the competition became a truly global league - perhaps its own super league - and Abu Dhabi’s City had surpassed Chelsea.

“It opened the door to a new era of ownership,” one source who has worked directly with Abramovich says. It also opened the door to “sportswashing”. There is still considerable debate whether that definition applies to Abramovich and Chelsea, with some of it dependent of what comes next. That debate is why Labour MPs like Chris Bryant used parliamentary privilege to push for sanctions. Earlier this year, Conservative MP David Davis used the same privilege to describe Abramovich as “the man who manages President Putin’s private economic affairs, according to the Spanish national intelligence committee”, with his ownership of Chelsea giving him “enormous soft power and influence in the UK”. The club and Abramovich insist he is non-political and have no links to Putin, having won a series of apologies from media for such claims.

His era of ownership does say a few things about English football, just as it changed it. Most immediately, it shows how the game’s base greed has got it so entangled in geopolitics that even the most powerful owners are subject to sudden turns of greater forces. It should be a lesson for the ownerships of other clubs. Consider the following blunt statement, that is undeniably true. Abramovich is being forced out of Chelsea because Putin has invaded Ukraine, while threatening the world with nuclear weapons.

We don’t really know what Abramovich thinks of any of this, though, because he says so little. The argument from obsequious defenders is he doesn’t have to. That’s the benefit of wealth. That’s just accepted as the way it is. But should it be?

The following is a well-worn line for a worthy reason. Football clubs are social institutions, that represent their communities. That is the earthiest of identities, forever tying them to the very grass they play on, and the streets that surround them.

It’s a betrayal of the game’s responsibilities that any owner can be so unknown to their club’s communities, or that their motivations can be so unknown. Roman, we hardly knew ye. No, really.

It also reflects just how neglectfully laissez-faire the game was for so long, the ultimate product of British political and economic norms. Any money would do.

This disgraceful invasion may well instigate a reckoning for football that has long been coming, forcing it to look at itself. Chelsea, for all the focus on them, are likely to be relatively safe. But what of the troubles of Everton?

Football can no longer indulge the fantasy it is “non-political”. Neither can Abramovich. That raises the bigger question over what this was all for, what it all means. Some of it, as Abramovich did profess, was just about winning trophies. There can equally be no denying the authenticity of Chelsea fan emotion, and how he gave them some of the best days of their lives.

Abramovich helped Chelsea achieve unprecedented success (Getty Images)
Abramovich helped Chelsea achieve unprecedented success (Getty Images)

Abramovich himself even seemed to enjoy some of it too, with real joy occasionally breaking out from that gnomic smile. Behind it were so many unknowns, though, most of all about the sporting lesson of all this.

There was never any grand plan or ideology, the sort of grander journeys that display the best of sport. An incomprehensibly wealthy man just took over a club and pumped money in, sometimes displaying the worst excesses of the game, particularly through the constant recourse to expenditure.

Ironically, in a speech that was regularly repeated to managers, Abramovich once told Carlo Ancelotti he craved an “identity”. “I want to find a manager that gives my team an identity,” he told the Italian. “Because when I watch Chelsea I’m not able to find an identity.” That was because he never showed the patience to develop one.

Consider the contrast between Chelsea and City. Both were obsessed with replicating Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and both were desperate to get the Catalan in as manager. They went about it in different ways, though. Abramovich just tried to throw money at Guardiola himself. City used Abu Dhabi’s immense resources to install a huge infrastructure, and ensure it was the perfect job for the Catalan to walk into. Little wonder it is five years since Chelsea last won the title, with City claiming three in that time. The club had an ideology.

Chelsea’s only ideology was top-down winning. “Failure isn’t an option”, was Abramovich's mantra, according to one figure who worked with him. It meant there weren’t many options in terms of long-term structure.

Chelsea were a lesson in some ways. There were a lot of times when rivals like Manchester United could have done with their ruthlessness. Abramovich’s business expectations did condition standards at the club. It forced a level of performance. But that could never be detached from the level of expenditure.

Consider another “truth” of Abramovich’s time. Through his 19 years, Chelsea became by far London’s most successful club. Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal were often seen as lacking some kind of winning mentality next to these relentless trophy winners. It’s just that winning mentality comes much easier when you know you can afford a better level of player and manager. That’s the thinking that really matters. It’s the bottom line that gets you over the line.

It also meant that their successes were more staccato, less structured, often dependent on the short-term impact of individual figures. That’s how they could go from the disaster of 2015-16 to the title inside a year, how they’ve won the Champions League in two of their worst seasons, but also how they’ve gone so long without winning the league.

Abramovich’s attempts to win at all costs meant Chelsea were often lacking in process. And yet that is fitting in its own way because winning has now come with a cost. The manner of Abramovich’s departure means all the success has a different complexion. To many in the wider world, Putin will now be reflected in every trophy. The Russian dictator has certainly determined Abramovich’s departure.

One well-voiced response to this is Abramovich’s charitable contributions, from the donations to the NHS during the pandemic and his work on anti-semitism, right up to the final announcement that the “net proceeds” of the sale would go to a fund for victims of the invasion.

It is creditable that Abramovich’s Chelsea changed the perception of what a club could be, in terms of social impact. Charity workers and activists genuinely praise their commitment, and the billionaire’s vision to be a “force for good”.

It’s equally undeniable, however, that such charitable work mitigates criticism and tends to suppress more difficult questions. That ran alongside the suppression of the same questions through legal means. Abramovich’s expensive lawyers spent the last few years using the law to ensure his relationship with Putin and the Russian state couldn’t really be discussed.

That was all forced into the open by the invasion, and the call of three Labour MPs - right up to leader Keir Starmer - for Abramovich to be sanctioned. That makes all this very sensitive, and should at least couch some of the more gushing assessments of his departure.

That manner of the pending exit itself is just tawdry, and colours so much that went before. The arch businessman has been pressured into announcing his intention to sell, weakening his hand as he just drops everything and leaves.

All of this is a direct consequence of an autocrat launching an illegal invasion. That certainly has meaning, and says much more than Abramovich ever did.