OLIVER HOLT: Roman Abramovich changed Chelsea and English football… but he leaves a tainted legacy

Experience teaches a person to be wary of gift-bearing billionaires, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t accept the narrative that Roman Abramovich, the pioneer of the mega-rich generation of Premier League club owners, leaves Chelsea in a blizzard of generosity. and philanthropy.

London has long been said to be like the Wild West for the opportunities it offers foreign investors, and now that the game is over for Vladimir Putin’s allies, Abramovich is getting his investments out of Dodge as fast as he can in an oligarchic fashion. .

The idea of ​​canceling £1.5billion in loans as a parting gift to the club he’s owned for almost 20 years is enticing until one remembers he bought Chelsea for £140 million in 2003 and hopes to sell it north of £3 billion.

Roman Abramovich set to sell Chelsea after 20 years amid Russian invasion of Ukraine

It is also worth waiting for the fine print of his proposal to set up a charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale of the club will be donated, a foundation, he says, which “will be for the benefit of all the victims of the war”. in Ukraine’. Others have already noted the inherent qualification of “net proceeds”.

In the statement released by Abramovich last week, he did not mention that the war was started by his alleged associate, Putin, an association he denied.

Nor does it mention that the invasion is becoming a massacre, a bombardment of an unarmed nation of brave men and women whose lives are ruined, whose towns and villages are destroyed, whose families are murdered.

Maybe billionaires like Abramovich think money can cure everything, but it can’t. He cannot bring back the dead. He cannot buy a child a new father or a new mother. So here is an alternative statement: all the money in the world, all the net proceeds of all the charitable foundations, will not be enough to wipe out the innocent blood that continues to flow in Ukraine.

It’s like one of those books where the postscript changes everything. Yes, in terms of football, Abramovich’s reign at Stamford Bridge was a success. In terms of trophies, it was the best period in the club’s history. His investment propelled Chelsea from the rank of kings of Europe.

In football terms, Chelsea’s first true team from the Abramovich era, the team with Jose Mourinho at its helm and John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba at the helm, will be remembered as one of the iconic teams in the history of English football. They played with the swagger and courage imbued by the Special One when Mourinho was at the peak of his powers.

Abramovich’s money also propelled them to the top of club play. They won the Champions League in 2012 when they shocked Bayern Munich and again in 2021 when they shocked Manchester City. Abramovich’s money has funded new iterations of Chelsea teams and kept them at or near the top for his entire time as owner.

So I understand why Chelsea fans chanted his name in Kenilworth Road ahead of the FA Cup tie with Luton Town last week as news broke that he had put the club up for sale. To do so in the one-minute applause for Ukraine at Burnley on Saturday was pathetic and despicable, but tribalism in English football knows no bounds.

For Chelsea fans, Abramovich was a good owner. He spent lavishly on the players. He brought fans the success they had only dreamed of before his arrival. When it came to who his friends were and how he made his money, most of us turned a blind eye.

In his remarks about the sale of the club, Abramovich did not mention the brutal attack on Vladimir Putin

In his remarks about the sale of the club, Abramovich did not mention the brutal attack on Vladimir Putin

The Russian billionaire turned Chelsea into two-time European champions in 20 years

The Russian billionaire turned Chelsea into two-time European champions in 20 years

His influence on the game is more questionable. Abramovich ushered in the era of the Billionaire Boys’ Club in the Premier League. We can draw a line between his taking over at Chelsea, the acquisition of Manchester City by Sheik Mansour and the annexation of Newcastle by Saudi Arabia. Sportswashing works and Abramovich pioneered it.

Chelsea’s spending was intoxicating at first as it broke the duopoly that had recently been established by Manchester United and Arsenal. Arsene Wenger’s fortune never recovered from Chelsea’s newfound power in the transfer market.

But Abramovich’s deep pockets had other consequences as well. The money spent by the Russian oligarch has led to a constant inflation of fees paid by other clubs for top players and money paid for their salaries as well.

As others spent more to catch up, the gap between high and low widened. In terms of the money the Premier League has raked in from TV deals, it has never been better. And yet most of their clubs lost money.

Abramovich has loaned the club £1.514 billion, meaning the total cost of his investment in the club, including the purchase price, is almost £1.7 billion. Chelsea have racked up losses of £896m in their two decades of ownership, the highest in the Premier League.

Abramovich's takeover of Chelsea was followed by Sheikh Mansour at Man City

Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea was followed by Sheikh Mansour at Man City

Abramovich’s arrival in English football has changed our game in ways we could not have foreseen. Today, our Premier League is populated by nation states that own our clubs and a host of other billionaires from around the world.

More and more, they want more. Unknown in the history of our game, some tried – and will try again – to create a European Super League which would destroy our pyramid if it became reality.

Abramovich was good for Chelsea but his influence hurt the English game. We can say to ourselves that these billionaires are benevolent men, we can say to ourselves that these States which possess precious parts of our football culture do not want anything in exchange for their largesse, but we are fooling ourselves if we persist.

Abramovich’s legacy in England isn’t as glorious as Chelsea fans would like

Many have warned of the insidious repercussions of peddling our clubs to owners like this, but, even so, there was something about the way it ended with Abramovich that felt like a mask had been removed from our eyes and we could see clearly again.

When your football clubs are owned by men like Abramovich, who are linked to people like Putin, sooner or later bad things will happen. When your football clubs are owned by the Saudi state, which is murdering journalists and waging its own war in Yemen, sooner or later there will be a price to pay. When your football clubs are owned by men like Mansour, the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and the United Arab Emirates does not condemn the war in Ukraine at a meeting of the UN Security Council, that embarrass our game.

Abramovich changed Chelsea. And he changed English football. But when we think of his legacy to our game, we think of the circumstances in which he sold the club, we think of the things he didn’t do and the things he didn’t say while the tanks of Putin were rolling in Ukraine and around the world. shivered.