On Thursday 10th March, we finally got what many of us had waited for what seemed to be an age to hear, Roman Abramovich was finally sanctioned and assets seized.
For many of us, it seemed to be a long time coming. The Ukrainian crisis had been at the forefront of the news and sanctions were almost immediately placed on several Russian oligarchs yet strangely the most known oligarch of them all seemed unscathed.
This omission even raised questions in Parliament and it seemed at odds to what was happening elsewhere with other Russian ‘business’ people receiving such sanctions. The delay had even allowed Abramovich to try and offload his interests in Chelsea before they could be seized. The whole affair brought into question not only the Government’s stand on such high powered financial benefactors but also on the Premier League rule on owners being ‘right and proper’.
So let’s take a closer look at Chelsea football club, a team whom we play this month.
In July 2003 Ken Bates, the then Chelsea owner, sold Chelsea to the billionaire Roman Abramovich for a reported £149 million. At the time Abramovich was a relative unknown to the British public. Abramovich had enriched himself in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, obtaining Russian state-owned assets at prices far below market value in Russia’s controversial loans for shares privatisation programme.
He had been imprisoned in 1992 for theft of government property, but this did not stop his pursuit for wealth and power. Just three years later in 1995, Abramovich acquired a controlling interest in the large oil company Sibneft in a rigged auction.
It is reported that Abramovich paid US$100 million for half of the company. The fast-rising value of the company led many observers to suggest that the real cost of the company should have been in the billions of dollars (it was worth US$2.7 billion at that time).
Abramovich later admitted in court that he paid billions of dollars of bribes to government officials and gangsters to acquire and protect his assets. Yet despite this background the Premier League saw the Russian as a fit and proper person to take ownership of one of its clubs.
Questions were initially raised over the motives of such a move. Sergei Pugachev, a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle was quoted as saying: ‘Putin personally told me of his plan to acquire the Chelsea Football Club in order to increase his influence and raise Russia’s profile, not only with the elite but with ordinary British people’.
Abramovich reportedly denied that he was acting under control from the Kremlin and even went to court to dispel this and the court found in his favour but it was clear that he had close ties to Putin. The acquisition of Chelsea FC was the first of many such takeovers by these super rich owners and has changed the face of football in our country.
Chelsea under his ownership has become one of the big names in football, but many feel it was built with, as some would call it, ‘blood money’. A regular chant from the terraces targeted at Chelsea fans is ‘where will you be when your owner goes to jail’.
The money seemed tainted and the success built from dubious means. After all, the US intelligence community believes Abramovich is a ‘bag carrier’, a financial middleman for Putin. It thus seemed odd that Abramovich was not an immediate target when financial sanctions were levelled at Russian oligarchs.
The hand over
But it is possible Abramovich saw the writing on the wall. On February 26, he announced that he would hand over the stewardship of Chelsea to the trustees of the Chelsea Foundation and a week later, Abramovich wrote off the £1.5 billion the club owed him.
He put the club up for sale, pledging to donate net proceeds from it to the victims of the war in Ukraine, whether this meant all victims on both sides is not known. The net proceeds could of course have been zero. Before the sale could be made, sanctions finally were placed on Abramovich with Chelsea allowed to still operate under a special licence.
It was then that Chelsea even had the audacity to try and force their up-and-coming game against Middlesbrough to be behind closed doors. What had Middlesbrough done to be penalised in such a way? It showed the arrogance of ‘one of the big boys’, and was a disgraceful request which was rightly turned down by the FA. Some may feel that it is the Chelsea supporters that were being penalised in all this.
But let’s shed a little light on Chelsea supporters. Chelsea had a core following prior to the Abramovich takeover but they were far from being one of the big boys. The fan base has also dramatically altered and has now moved away from football’s working class roots and into a higher class of those with ‘loads of money’.
There is also an arrogance amongst their fan base. ‘Where were you when your team were s**t’, is yet another regular chant aimed at Chelsea supporters. You reap what you sow is a phrase that comes to mind.
So what can be made of all this?
It is clear that whatever people think of Roman Abramovich, it is clear that he was one of many who profited with the fall of the Soviet Union. Chelsea was bought with money obtained from this fall, dodgy money? I will leave you to decide whether it was or not.
It is well documented how Abramovich obtained his money and with his acceptance into the league, it has allowed others to see the Premier League as a way to almost legitimise their dealings.
Newcastle is a recent example. The proposed sale to Saudi Arabian ownership prompted concerns and criticism, such as arguments that the country’s human rights record, as well as ongoing piracy of sports broadcasts in the region had been ignored.
With regards to Abramovich, it is interesting to note that the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky requested the US government to not levy sanctions on Abramovich given his importance in war relief efforts. Abramovich is also part of a delegation attempting to broker a peace deal between the Ukrainian and Russia and was allegedly poisoned for his efforts at these peace talks.
But the fact remains that there are clear question marks around his ownership of Chelsea, and in fact the decisions on ownership made by the Premier League.
I have never envied the success of Chelsea and do not hanker for West Ham to be a Manchester City or Newcastle. Glory is nice but let’s be honest, living in Wales as I grew up I had the option to choose any team that took my fancy and could have chosen one of the big boys (Arsenal, Leeds, Liverpool and Manure at the time). But instead decided on a team that seemed grounded and played entertaining football which didn’t always result in the number of winning results.
I have never been a supporter of Sullivan and Gold and will never be but, although I say it through gritted teeth, I prefer an ownership where we can identify where the money has come from and are in it for clear financial reasons rather than to legitimise a regime.