He would regularly pay over the odds for players, to the point that former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once accused Chelsea of “financial doping”. Belgium star Romelu Lukaku ended up being the most expensive purchase of the Abramovich era, arriving at Stamford Bridge on a deal worth £97 million last year. When it is all tallied up, his total wage bill for players will be an obscene £2 billion.
Turning Chelsea into a global powerhouse, almost overnight, ensured the stakes were raised around the Premier League. Soon enough, the mega-rich from America and the Middle East started to circle, with once-middling outfits Manchester City and Newcastle now in the hands of some of the wealthiest businesses on the planet.
Money didn’t always buy success. Mourinho, whose ego matched his employer’s billions, had an inevitable fallout with Abramovich and departed in 2007, only to return in 2013 and help guide them to another title, although by that point they had some serious rivals in the transfer market as billions flowed into the English game.
Behind the sport was something more sinister and his decision to sell comes amid unprecedented sanctions on Russia as it rains down rockets and missiles on Ukraine. The manner in which Abramovich had made his fortune, and whose back he scratched along the way, had already been heavily scrutinised.
The 55-year-old bought assets and companies from the former Soviet Union and sold them for eye-watering profits. One of them was oil company Sibneft, as well as his stake in Russian airline Aeroflot. Much of that money now resides in superyachts and London mansions; guaranteed safe investments with money washed squeaky clean.
British MP David Davis spoke in the House of Commons in January about a topic now under swift review in the UK; the use of its banks, finance houses and legal frameworks to house Russian money and investments.
“It is worth reminding people of Mr Abramovich’s background and the character of the man. We are speaking here of the man who manages President [Vladimir] Putin’s private economic affairs, according to the Spanish national intelligence committee,” Davis said.
“When he bought Chelsea FC, Abramovich was the governor of the Chukotka region of Russia. It was alleged by associates of his that the purchase was done at the behest of the Kremlin. As a result of the purchase, he now has enormous soft power and influence in the UK. I ask the House to come to its own conclusion about whether this man is acting at the behest of the Kremlin or Putin’s government.”
It’s tempting to think the departure of Abramovich from the Premier League might prompt more serious reflection about sports washing (the use of sport as a means of geopolitical gain) and the morals of who should be allowed to invest in clubs, leagues and tournaments.
But the game has long changed. Abramovich saw to that. The price tags from the bidding wars he helped begin are only going to increase. There are precious few who can afford to pay the bills, meaning the ethics of good global citizenry will again play second fiddle to the business of sport.
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