Bees Sting the Post-Roman Blues


Nobody saw Chelsea's 1-4 home defeat to little Brentford coming yesterday, except perhaps Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution who momentarily remembered her civic duty.

If there is any justice in the football universe, then it is only dispensed mystifyingly, little nuggets thrown sparingly to the pleading public. Nine times out of ten, Goliath beats David, which makes eye-opening scorelines like yesterday's at Stamford Bridge all that much sweeter.

The demolition of the Champions League holders and World Club champions by the newly-promoted Bees was one such treat. Christian Eriksen, back from the dead, was angelic again as he delivered another deadly finish. Chelsea's superstars were humiliated.

The Blues, traditionally the mediocre never-men of London football, had been pushed to the top of the tree by their Russian sugar daddy Roman Abramovich for almost 20 years.

With said oligarch now disgraced by Russia's assault on Ukraine, it was time for some divine commentary. The fact Abramovich never gave interviews left plenty of room for rumour and nobody was quite sure how much of his wealth was legit but set against a never-ending torrent of international cash in London, his money talked, people shrugged and Chelsea became an improbable football giant.

Only Tony Banks, sports minister and Blues fan, questioned Abramovich's credentials in public when he first bought the club.

The Russian's humble origins and lack of a solid business background raised eyebrows. His army uniform and friendship with President Boris Yeltsin's daughter had placed him in the right place at the right time to harvest the sale of the century when the Soviet Union collapsed, state assets were sold off and a select few were transformed into oligarchs.

Why precisely Abramovich bought Chelsea we may never know. Suspicions abound that it was part of a wider Kremlin plan to inject Russians into positions of soft power in the West, particularly in a city favoured by money launderers.

The capital's evening newspaper was bought by another oligarch Evgeny Lebedev, who cosied up to Boris Johnson and was duly rewarded by the Prime Minister with a seat in Britain's parliament, despite being the son of an ex-KGB agent!

Chelsea, a stone's throw from the boutiques of the King's Road, the mansions of the Royal Borough of Kensington and the closest club to the centre of the nation, made sense as a trophy.

Abramovich crossed swords with Jose Mourinho in buying Andriy Shevchenko and baffled many by picking Avram Grant as manager but otherwise was less a hands-on owner than most.

When he funded the renovation of Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, sponsored CSKA Moscow and helped Russia recruit Guus Hiddink, whom he employed twice at Stamford Bridge, it was clear he maintained close ties to his homeland. Abramovich was also said to have been involved in Russia's successful 2018 World Cup bid.

Another oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, Alisher Usmanov, once owned 30% of Arsenal and now has interests in Everton. Both he and Abramovich lie low overseas today, sanctioned after Russian forces invaded Ukraine on the 24th of February.

Abramovich and Putin.
Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin

The background noise had grown loud in recent years. In 2018 the UK government demurred renewing Abramovich's visa, causing the Russian to take out Israeli and Portuguese passports and relocate to Portugal.

Last year, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, poisoned and subsequently jailed for daring to challenge Putin, named Abramovich and Usmanov as two of eight "key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy." Chelsea played on as if nothing had changed.

But once Russian tanks entered the Donbas, eyes quickly switched back to the oligarchs. M.P. Chris Bryant used parliamentary privilege to read out a Home Office memo from 2012 which linked Abramovich to the Kremlin, referring to a court case in which the judge said he had "privileged access to President Putin."

There was nowhere left for the Chelsea owner to hide.

On the 2nd of March Abramovich said he was passing his shares to a separate company, eight days before the tardy Johnson government stated his UK assets had been frozen because he was "a pro-Kremlin oligarch."

On the 12th of March the Premier League announced Abramovich had been disqualified as a club director and the Chelski era was finally over.

Abramovich's arrival at Stamford Bridge in 2003 marked the start of the petroclub era of European football, where spending reached stratospheric levels as clubs were snapped up by oil and gas giants and even actual nations.

Amazingly, Chelsea posted a loss of £149 million and held debts of £1 billion last season, despite winning the Champions League, sums which arguably are small beer for its owner, who happily wrote off the loans the club owed him when he was struck off.

Luzhniki Stadium.
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow

Through a complex network of offshore shell companies, Abramovich controlled Chelsea but did not literally own it. Whoever buys it now will have a right mess to sort out.

When Abramovich himself surfaced at peace talks on the Belarus border representing Russia a week ago and was remarkably poisoned to boot, there was no longer any doubt the Chelsea owner was a political man intimately connected to Moscow.

But if the fact English football tolerated Chelski was a badge of shame, then the welcoming of Saudi owners at Newcastle and dictatorships with poor human rights records owning Manchester City and hosting the World Cup are also difficult to justify.

The famous 'fit and proper' test of club owners in English football has long been a farce.

That Chelsea fans sang Abramovich's name after he had scuttled away under a cloud was appalling. Blues fans can salute their 18 trophies won with roubles if they wish and the team's prowess will surely go on, given the megabucks consortia now gunning to buy the club.

Abramovich will probably never break the habit of a lifetime and speak to the press so we can only judge him from afar, a saviour for a modest club but also a bull in the china shop who imbalanced football's natural order while keeping close ties with a nefarious regime.

The most influential figure in British and probably European football of the last 20 years has, like a thief in the night, suddenly left the building.

Chelsea Stadium.

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(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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