THOUSANDS OF VOICES COULD BE HEARD singing the famous Russian folklore song ‘Kalinka’ during another of Chelsea’s match at Stamford Bridge. The crowd cheered a goal scored by the Blues and peered gaily, and perhaps thankfully, at the seat where Roman Abramovich settled, smiling shyly to hide his undoubted confidence. His plan was obviously working.
When he arrived in London in 2003, to the Chelsea’s fans he probably looked like Santa Claus – as, in fact, he was called in the British press back then – with stacks of money in his large bag ready to be invested in covering the club’s numerous debts. At that time they amounted to £90 million – but first the Russian oligarch laid out £140 million for the club itself.
The public was guessing what urged the businessman, who had not been keen on football until then, to plunge into Chelsea’s lofty financial troubles. Was it because they were a capital club, or because they had secured their place in the Champions League for the upcoming season? The truth was that the Chelsea’s acquisition appeared the most transparent in relation to other options that Abramovich considered.
Before purchasing 50 percent of the club’s shares from its former chairman Ken Bates, Abramovich had tried to acquire CSKA Moscow, without success. Since then his only involvement in the domestic game has been to extrinsically back the Russian national team as well as the Russian Football Union with his money.
He soon came to know the particulars of how the financial structure at Chelsea worked and acquired a further 94 percent of the club’s stocks. Therefore, almost overnight, Abramovich had turned into the majority owner of the west London club.
He behaved like a Russian Florentino Pérez, constructing his personal version of the Galácticos without skimping to spend around £120 million on transfers immediately after he got his hands on Chelsea. The undoubted talents of Claude Makélélé, Hernán Crespo, Joe Cole, Damien Duff and others were amongst his first signings – with the fans in dreamland and the media in overdrive at the first of English football’s oligarchs.
On his presentation at Chelsea, Damian Duff echoed the sentiments of the fans and fellow signings by stating: “I think the club has a great future and I want to be a part of it.” He couldn’t have arrived at a better time.
In North London, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s controversially declared that Chelsea’s new politics could only be characterized as “financial doping”. Like no other club acquisition in the history of English football, Abramovich at Chelsea had the national game in a stir.
At the beginning of his rule, Abramovich only flew to his team’s games and then went back to Russia as he was still an active governor of Chukotka, Russia’s Far East region. He was the people’s hero, generously favouring the region by building synthetic football pitches, supplying schools with computers and paying for kids’ holidays on the Black Sea.
Despite his popularity in Russia’s obscure east, the rest of the country was far more skeptical about his plans to invest in Chelsea, and by default the Premier League. People could not submit to the fact that millions of dollars were leaving Russia to enrich a team they knew such little about. After all, Abramovich had made his money in oil, which in Russia is often regarded as a common property that must not be managed by a single person.
Others, however, agreed, stating that Abramovich had done wonders in restoring the reputation of Russia in England and bringing to light the potential of the Russian game in the most marketable league in the world. There were rumours that Russia’s top stars would follow him to London, where a mini-Moscow would emerge.
It’s telling that it’s almost impossible to find a genuine Abramovich’s interview online. Indeed, he avoids showing up at press conferences, stating that his words are often twisted in the papers and as a result people tend to blame him for leaving his homeland, despite overlooking all the work he has done for his beloved Russia. He’s an enigma, one we really know very little about.
On the contrary, there were few, if any, discontented Chelsea supporters in England when news broke that a Russian entrepreneur was ready to save their club from the Ken Bates era. Having shocked the English community with his desire to bring football’s biggest names to Stamford Bridge, he instantly became the richest man in England, leaving behind another Russian expatriate residing in London, Boris Berezovsky. No wonder Abramovich was chosen as Man of the Year in London in 2004.
With his virtually new team now compiled entirely of household names, Abramovich saw Chelsea finish second in the Premier League in 2004 and qualify for the Champions League – his ultimate goal for that season under Claudio Ranieri. With his head unsure that the Blues’ future would be best served under the experienced Italian, Abramovich concentrated on searching a manager for who would suit his ambitious plans.
In the Champions League final that year Didier Deschamps’s AS Monaco clashed with José Mourinho’s Porto, and the Chelsea’s owner was torn between the France legend and the brash, egotistical Portuguese. In the end he opted for a man who would later emerge as his most successful manager.
Just one season was enough for Mourinho to bring winners’ medals to Stamford Bridge and become a firm fans’ favourite. Not everything, however, went smoothly between the owner and the manager, considering the sphere of influence each had. Chelsea was synonymous with both Mourinho and Abramovich, and the Russian’s influence in team matters grated with his managerial protégé.
In 2007, Abramovich missed six consecutive Chelsea’s games – his longest streak since purchasing the club four years earlier. With tensions between the pair mounting, things came to a head when Abramovich signed friend and former AC Milan star Andriy Shevchenko for £30 million – a deal Mourinho was against. Aside from Shevchenko, Alexei Smertin and Yuri Zhirkov also arrived at Chelsea under the orders of the owner.
Mourinho, by now wholly frustrated with the Russian’s interference in team matters and signings, and seeing his side plagued by inconsistency on the field, eventually left. In a straight fight between the owner and his manager, there would only be one winner. It was a decision that Abramovich would later come to regret.
Following the unsuccessful appointments of another friend in Avram Grant – who came close to exceeding even the achievement of Jose Mourinho but ultimately fell short at the final hurdle in three major competitions – and Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Russia’s head coach, took up the role for three months in 2009. In yet another show of his strength, Abramovich used his influence in Russian football – he was by now paying the wages of Hiddink as national team manager – to secure his appointment at the Bridge on a temporary basis.
The oil mogul now had more time to dedicate to football as he finally left the Governor’s position in Chukotka in 2008 – with a little help from the president Vladimir Putin. It’s these political ties and close friendships with some of Russia’s most controversial and highly influential people that has made Abramovich a target of ire in the Russian press. Some question his integrity, while others point to his ulterior motives as both Chelsea owner and Russian FA benefactor. That he rarely speaks in public keeps the cloud hanging over his head for many.
By May 2008, Abramovich’s ultimate aim for his club, now one of the biggest in world football both on and off the pitch, was complete when Chelsea competed in the Champions League final against Manchester United. Despite their tag as favourites for the final, Chelsea lost to Sir Alex Ferguson’s men and would have to wait another four years for a chance to fulfill their owner’s dream.
Having fired Avram Grant after the Moscow defeat, Abramovich hired six other coaches for the manager’s position but none of them turned out to be good enough at Stamford Bridge to replace the Special One he had fired some years ago – a man who had succeeded in bringing the Champions League trophy to his next club, Inter Milan.
Luiz Felipe Scolari struggled to adapt to life in England, Guus Hiddink only came to London for a few months, and André Villas-Boas and Roberto De Matteo were too young and inexperienced to cope with the club’s demands. Carlo Ancelotti, despite winning the double and proving himself as capable of filling the large shoes of Mourinho, failed to win over his owner after an inconsistent second season at the Bridge, while Rafael Benítez was never a long-term option following fan discord and his Liverpool history.
In 2010, Roman Abramovich proved to be a major catalyst in promoting Russia’s bid for the World Cup in 2018, which was his last joint action with the Russian Football Union. Since then, a multitude of problems with Fabio Capello happened to the RFU which sought to pay the multimillion forfeit for ripping up the contact with the Italian.
Despite his influence in the Russian game, in recent years he has taken a step back in his motherland, choosing to focus his wealth and time on Chelsea.
Chelsea’s reunion with José Mourinho finally took place in 2013. By then, the Blues had already become Champions League winners under Roberto Di Matteo, and the time was perfect again for another era of divisive Mourinho leadership. Having patched up his differences with Abramovich, and having left Real Madrid after failing to bring La Decima to the Bernabéu, he swung full circle and returned to the club he said he “felt most loved at”. The two biggest names in the history of this famous club were together again.
The Premier League trophy Chelsea won under Mourinho in 2015 – the fourth during the Abramovic era – did not seem to satisfy Abramovich’s appetite, who was rumoured to be ready to break with the Portuguese while the team was consistently showing poor results. They continued to struggle under the leadership of Mourinho who was finally sacked in December 2015.
Whether it is a signal for Abramovich to start a revolution at Chelsea or not, he is already pondering over the necessity of new, expensive signings. Whatever happens next in the entertaining, controversial reign of Roman Abramovich, you can be sure that Chelsea fans will still be thanking the Russian for building the club into one of football’s greatest empires.
By Vladislav Ryabov