Roman Abramovich: Death and destruction in Ukraine overshadows Russian oligarch’s legacy at Chelsea

By Issy Ronald and Jack Bantock, CNN

For almost 20 years, Roman Abramovich propelled Chelsea from a club on the periphery of the elite to a global footballing superpower, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought an abrupt end to its reign.

The bloody conflict in Ukraine and international outrage over Russia’s invasion have put the spotlight back on Abramovich and his Chelsea property.

It’s a goal that has shed light on the jarring friction between sport and politics: Abramovich, the dream-fulfilling football owner – adored by much of Chelsea fans – versus Abramovich, the Russian oligarch.

Days into the war, as the West reacted by imposing sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs, Abramovich’s assets – including Chelsea – looked increasingly vulnerable to a more punitive financial environment and he soon announced his intention to sell the club.

Before the sale could be concluded, however, the British government announcement that Abramovich would face sanctions as one of “Russia’s wealthiest and most influential oligarchs, whose business empires, wealth, and connections are closely associated with the Kremlin.”

Chelsea will be somewhat shielded sanctions, allowed to continue to fulfill its commitments under a special license. But that means the club is unable to sell merchandise or tickets to upcoming matches, engage in the transfer market or issue new contracts to players under Abramovich’s ownership.

Last month, British lawmaker Chris Bryant called on Abramovich to lose ownership of Chelsea after seeing a leaked document from the UK Home Office in 2019 which feared the 55-year-old had ” ties to the Russian state and its public association with corrupt activities and practices”. the deputy said in Parliament.

According to ReutersAbramovich has obtained Portuguese and Israeli citizenship in recent years.

“Surely Mr. Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country?” says Bryant.

Abramovich’s rep did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the oligarch’s punishment.

Boosted by Abramovich’s huge financial investment – more than $1.99 billion according to a respected football blogger Hiking Switzerland – Chelsea have enjoyed an unprecedented period of success since acquiring the club for $233 million in June 2003.

“I don’t want to throw away my money”, Abramovich told the BBC after the takeover, “but it’s really for fun and that means success and trophies.”

In the 19 years under Abramovich, the club collected 21 major trophies, according to Chelsea. After winning the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi last month, Chelsea have officially won a major trophy at the disposal of the club.

“Thank you Mr Abramovich”

It was gratitude for that golden age that sustained a wave of adulation for the oligarch when his impending sale of the club was announced, among fans as well as former players.

“The best”, former captain John Terry tweetedaccompanied by a photo of him and Abramovich celebrating another Premier League triumph in 2017.

A statement from the Chelsea Supporters Trust (CST) board summed up the wider outpouring of sentiment among the club’s fans on social media, thanking Abramovich for his “affection, passion and dedication” over the course of a tenure that brought “unprecedented success”.

“Chelsea supporters will never forget everything he did for our club. Thank you, Mr Abramovich,” said the declaration added, published before the British government announced the sanctions.

According to Richard Weekes, who is one of the founders of the Chelsea supporters group ‘We Are The Shed’, the ‘Roman Empire’ has helped make fans’ wildest dreams come true.

“The last 20 years have allowed Chelsea fans to live their best life,” Weekes told CNN before Abramovich was sanctioned.

“Traveling around the world to win and celebrate football’s greatest prizes, you simply can’t ask for more and, for that reason, Roman will forever have a place in the hearts of every Chelsea supporter.

“The end of the ‘Roman Empire’ with Chelsea as ‘World Champions’ couldn’t be a more fitting conclusion to this chapter in our history.”

“Burnt Air”

While the past 19 years have been filled with golden memories and trophy after trophy, the days and months ahead look more uncertain.

In light of the sanctions imposed on Abramovich and the subsequent impact on Chelsea, the club have issued a declaration confirming that he would seek ‘permission to modify the license in order to allow the Club to operate as normally as possible’.

In such an uproar, the CST called for the voice of the supporters to be heard.

“Supporters MUST be involved in any conversation regarding the continued impacts on the club and its global fan base,” the band said in a statement on Twitter.

“CST implores the government to conduct a swift process to minimize uncertainty over Chelsea’s future, for supporters and supporters to receive a share of the gold as part of a sale of the club.”

The sanctions also prevent the sale of the club, pending the issuance of a special license.

In his initial statement posted on the club’s website before he was sanctioned, Abramovich said the net proceeds from the sale would be donated to a foundation set up “for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine”.

This statement was obviously vague as to who a particular victim might be; Abramovich’s critics have pointed out that the wording could also allow his new foundation to support the families of Russian soldiers.

“Roman Abramovich is very sensitive to what is happening right now,” Mikhail Khordokovsky, an exiled oligarch and Putin critic, told CNN ahead of the recent sanctions announcement.

“I have no information, but I cannot imagine that he made a decision without first consulting Putin.

“Anyway, that means he’s got a breath of burnt air. What he senses is the fire burning under President Putin,” Khodorkovsky said, referring to Abramovich’s plans to sell Chelsea.

In 2018, the US Treasury published the names of 210 Russian personalities, nicknamed the “Putin List”.

The administration was required to name the companies and individuals and consider sanctioning them under legislation aimed at punishing Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. election, as well as its human rights abuses. , the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing military operations in eastern Ukraine. .

The list, which included Abramovich, reads as if the United States had “just rewritten the Kremlin phone book,” Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev said in a Facebook post at the time.

But if Abramovich’s current wealth and apparent security in Russia reflect an affinity with Putin, that may be what put him at risk with the British government.

“He is one of the few oligarchs of the 1990s to retain his notoriety under Putin. None of our allies have yet sanctioned Abramovich,” the British government said in a statement. declaration Thursday. Canada has since sanctioned Abramovich as well.

Abramovich made a fortune in steel and investmentstaking advantage of the massive privatization that characterized Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as Prime Minister after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Abramovich’s wealth, valued at $14.5 billion in 2022 by Forbeswielded influence within Russian political circles as he was first elected to the State Duma and then appointed governor of Chukotka from 2000 to 2008.

A nervous future

While Weekes admitted the new owner’s status as an oligarch played on his mind in 2003, he added that fans would have had little power to reverse the takeover, no matter how they felt.

“Chelsea fans didn’t choose to be bought off,” said Weekes, “it’s unlikely a pushback would have changed the decision at the time if we had stopped to think about the morality behind it.

“People today are more willing to dig a little deeper, to understand right from wrong and, when it comes to a football club, have a desire to know that who their team represents matches their ideologies and beliefs. . This is a good thing.

“Only time will tell if our feeling towards his character will change but, for now, there’s no denying the happiness he has brought Chelsea supporters during his time here and for that we are grateful to him.”

This schism between appreciation and criticism was evident in Chelsea’s league matches at Burnley on March 5 and Norwich City on March 10.

As a minute of applause took place in tribute to Ukraine before the game against Burnley, chants of Abramovich’s name could be heard on a sky sports broadcast before being drowned out by boos from the stands.

The chants drew rebuke from Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel after the game.

“If we show solidarity, we show solidarity and we have to do it together. We take the knee together, if an important person from other clubs or from our club unfortunately dies, we show a minute of respect,” Tuchel told reporters after the match, which Chelsea won 4-0.

“It’s not the time to give other messages, it’s a time of respect. We do it because that’s who we are as a club too, we show respect as a club. We need our fans to commit to that minute of applause right now.

“We are doing it for Ukraine, there is no second opinion on the situation there. They have our thoughts and our support, and we have to stay united as a club.

Beyond this mix of feelings among fans, there is an equally strong sense of anxiety. Rumors of potential buyers continue to abound, but it remains to be seen when the club’s future will be clarified.

Who will be the new owner? Will they be able or willing to invest the same funds as Abramovich? Would they try to keep Chelsea away from Stamford Bridge?

After nearly two decades of envisioning nothing but success, these questions and more make Weekes’ mind “spin”.

“At the end of the day, Roman explicitly stressed that owning Chelsea was never for financial gain, will the new owner go down that way? Unlikely,” Weekes said.

“It’s worrying because, on top of everything, it may be the fans who end up paying the price.”

The-CNN-Wire
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