Just three weeks ago, a beaming Roman Abramovich was in the stands as Chelsea defeated Brazil’s Palmeiras 2-1 in the final of the Fifa Club World Cup. The frequency of his visits to watch the club in action had shrunk in recent years, but that he made the trip to Abu Dhabi suggested Abramovich was still emotionally invested. Certainly on the club’s big nights. The players delivered, marking a seminal moment in Abramovich’s tenure as owner. Chelsea had now won every trophy possible since the Russian oligarch assumed control in 2003.
After the final whistle, Abramovich embraced coach Thomas Tuchel and the players on the pitch before getting his hands on the silverware. “There is no doubt this is for him,” Tuchel said in Abu Dhabi. “We congratulated each other. I said it’s for him. It’s his club. It’s his input and passion that made this possible.”
Who would have thought things would unravel so soon. The Club World Cup though was possibly a fitting end to an era defined by a quest for trophies. After Abramovich’s announcement on Wednesday that he is going to sell the club amidst the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, a wave of polarising reactions has predictably followed. His critics may feel such an end was always inevitable for a man with seemingly murky business dealings and reported proximity to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
But for Chelsea’s fans – who have grown exponentially around the world since Abramovich set foot on Stamford Bridge – there is an overwhelming sense of gratitude, though some would call it sportswashing. When Abramovich acquired the club from British businessman Ken Bates for £140 million, Chelsea were a mid-table team in some financial stress. With 21 trophies in the last 19 years, Abramovich leaves Chelsea as one of the world’s most high-profile clubs.
His arrival transformed not just the fortunes of the west London club but the landscape of English football. Manchester United and Arsenal were the dominant forces back then with a firm grip on the Premier League title. From the start of the league in 1992-93 till 2003-04, one of them had won every season barring Blackburn Rovers’ triumph in 1994-95. The duopoly ended just a year after the Russian took over. He brought coach Jose Mourinho – not the version seen at Roma but one brimming with new ideas and energy – on board, instantly reaping rewards with league titles in 2004-05 and 2005-06.
It was in the summer of 2006 that Chelsea became more than a club for me. As a 12-year-old just beginning to take a liking to football – cricket was the major obsession until then – the success of the World Cup in Germany proved a major catalyst in getting me hooked. Once the World Cup was over, quickly overcoming the disappointment of Zinedine Zidane bidding adieu with a headbutt, a club to develop an allegiance for had to be found.
And Chelsea it was. There was perhaps subconscious awareness of their growing clout but it was the 2006 signing of Andriy Shevchenko for a then-record fee of £30.8 million that played a decisive role. Excitement over the Ukrainian striker’s arrival may not strike a chord with younger fans but he was one of the best forwards in Europe at the time, scoring crucial goals that an older cousin and AC Milan supporter never tired of vividly describing.
There were rumblings that Mourinho was not happy with Shevchenko’s arrival when he already had the towering presence of Didier Drogba up front. But Abramovich would have it no other way, perhaps the first signs of interference that managers were not very comfortable with. He was a friend of Shevchenko’s – never mind the irony of a Russian-Ukrainian friendship in the current climate – and was convinced that the striker could propel Chelsea towards complete dominance.
Although Shevchenko could never really hit his stride in the fast-paced Premier League, an abiding bond in blue was formed thousands of miles away in India.
It didn’t matter that fans of rival clubs would routinely take a jibe at Chelsea’s successes. “This was a club with no history that is simply buying trophies as a result of their financial firepower,” they would say. Manchester City’s UAE owners were still years away from investing as was Fenway Sports Group shovelling dollars into Liverpool.
In the early years, Abramovich’s frequent changing of managers and the perceptible absence of young English talent in the Chelsea set-up were also held against him. While they have had 13 different managers in his 19 years, who can argue against the results such an ostensibly short-sighted approach has yielded?
Both their Champions League titles came with new managers after sackings midway through the 2011-12 and 2020-21 seasons.
As far as producing English players is concerned, the last three years have seen Abramovich’s heavy investment in the academy finally bear fruit. For a long time, it seemed as though the academy – whose reputation as one of the best in England is reflected in their success at the youth level; led by Marc Guehi, the 2017 under-17 World Cup winning England squad had five Chelsea players including Callum Hudson-Odoi–was being used for merely loaning out the best talent before making a profit on their departures. Forced partly by the transfer ban, that criticism seems to have abated with the graduation of Mason Mount, Reece James, Trevoh Chalobah and Hudson-Odoi among others.
By then it was clear that not grooming home players was not merely a Chelsea problem. By then it was also evident that Manchester United and Arsenal supporters’ ire with their American owners was growing. Contrast that with the lack of complaints against Abramovich from Chelsea fans, barring defeating the motion to move out of Stamford Bridge in 2011.
“Chelsea fans have a lot of affinity for Abramovich and rightly so,” former Manchester United and England right-back Gary Neville said on Sky Sports on Thursday. “Irrespective of whether you like the idea of Russian money coming into English football or not, Abramovich has been a very good owner for Chelsea. There are worse owners who are English. My hometown club, Bury, has a terrible owner who sent them bust. We’ve got an issue in football with ownership generally, not just international ownership or ownership coming from money that we may not like.”
How will Abramovich’s exit impact the club’s long-term future? It is a question worth more than the £1.5 billion personal loan to Chelsea Abramovich has said he would write off. Whoever the new owners are, fans may have to brace for some suffering while the club is in the throes of a challenging transition. It will be uncharted territory for many associated with the club, one that could make many wistful for the good days Abramovich ushered in at Chelsea FC.
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