Requisitioned by the English government, Chelsea have played two games without the patronage of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who rescued the London club from certain bankruptcy. It happened in 2003, when the billionaire was 36 years old. He was a stranger with a huge amount of money. Like so many other sudden tycoons, he had made his own wealth in what was called Wild East Siberia, a bottomless pit of raw materials, belonging to the Soviet state until its collapse. When companies were privatized, the loot was exposed to the most ambitious and fast, and especially to those best connected to the networks of power. Abramovich moved like lightning. Together with his then friend Boris Berezovski, in 1996 he acquired the Sibneft oil company.
In 2005 Abramovich sold his stake in Sibneft to Gazprom, the Russian energy giant nationalized by Vladimir Putin in 1999. The young oligarch, who had paid a trinket (100 million) for his corresponding share in the purchase of Sibneft, received 12 billion for the sale. Gazprom, a company based in St. Petersburg, the city of which Putin had been mayor, became the economic and business locomotive of Russia. And on the political battering ram of the Russian president. These days we know better than ever.
Abramóvich’s landing at Chelsea changed the destiny of the club and of football. The Russian tycoon designed a perfect beautification operation. He bought much more than a club located in the center of London. He bought the affection of the fans, the social respectability and the greedy enthusiasm of the Premier League.
The Florentino Pérez-Abramóvich combination changed the economic rules of football and turned it into the behemoth it is today. Between 2000 and 2004, Real Madrid signed Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo and Beckham, according to Florentino Pérez’s graphic motto: an ax blow, a pine tree. While Real Madrid used the value of history and its famous brand to attract the best-known players, Abramovich pulled the checkbook to sign 25 players between 2003 and 2006. None of them had deserved the interest of Real Madrid. The escalation of Chelsea required huge expenses and immediate titles. It was certainly not the fate of the great stars.
Between 2003 and 2006, Abramovich spent 427 million on transfers and only earned 38 million from sales. Led by Mourinho, Chelsea won two consecutive Leagues. In less than three years, the football business discovered its future through the Russian. In the following years, tycoons from the USA, the Arabian Gulf, Russia and East Asia took over the main English clubs.
All of them—the Glazers, Henry, Kroenke, Usmanov, Mansour Bin Zayed—were welcome. None of them were offended by the origin of their money or the moral quality of their business. Now the same thing happens with Prince Bin Salman, a strongman of the Saudi regime and the new owner of Newcastle, whose fans do not seem to care about his more than dubious reputation. For them, like Abramóvich for a good part of the Chelsea fans, Bin Salman is a dearest benefactor.
Since 2004, all Premiership titles have gone to clubs owned by foreign tycoons, including Leicester, owned by a Thai family. None had the slightest connection with football. Neither did Abramovich, the man who paved the way for them and showed them the monumental opportunities of a business that asks no questions. Money is responsible for providing a magical bath of respectability, unless things get ugly and football is subject to much higher interests. This is the case of Abramóvich, the same ones who have massaged him for 20 years now air all his miseries.
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