Roman Abramovich’s move to step aside at Chelsea highlights the issue of omnipotent foreign owners in the English game
As the old romantic saying almost goes: if you love something, let stewardship and care of it go – naturally, while retaining possession of all the relevant deeds and liquid assets. The news that Roman Abramovich is apparently giving up day-to-day control of Chelsea to the trustees of the club’s charitable foundation has been interpreted in wildly different ways which, with the benefit of a little reflection, seems to have been the entire point of the exercise.
For some it is the ultimate sacrificial act of devotion: Abramovich’s way of insulating the club he adores from the threat of sanction, censure, even seizure. Big surprise: the billionaire oligarch has feelings! For others it is a cynical sleight of hand: the act of very grandiosely doing nothing at all, a solemn legal statement with no legal import whatsoever. For some it is a sign that nothing will be the same again. For others it is a sure sign that Abramovich is intent on ultimately making everything the same again.
Certainly if Abramovich had intended to clarify the ownership situation, or whether he intended to sell Chelsea, or what “stewardship and care” actually means in practice, or any of a number of issues currently worrying Chelsea fans, one assumes he would have done so.
Be nice if we could ask him, wouldn’t it? You know: take some lateral flows, sit him down for an hour with a few journalists or an audience of Chelsea fans. Pick his brains. Shoot the breeze. But the fact that this mundane scenario feels about as plausible as a page from a fantasy novel is, in many ways, the basic problem, a problem that goes far beyond one partially shaven Russian/Israeli/Portuguese citizen and his company credit card. Why does any owner of an asset as cherished as a local football club get to hide like this, essentially to communicate via smoke signals and the occasional managerial sacking? How, in the world’s most popular sport, did we allow one man – any man – to be simultaneously this powerful and this untouchable?
Democratic governments are accountable to their voters. Chief executives are accountable to their shareholders. Who is Abramovich accountable to? The Premier League? Fifa? The only thing we can say with any degree of certainty is that it is not Vladimir Putin. Definitely not Putin. Categorically. We know because a court said so. And so we must conclude that the modern football club owner is essentially a sort of renegade, an independent actor, answerable to nobody but his own theoretical conscience and the siren call of his desire.
From Mike Ashley at Newcastle to the Oyston family at Blackpool, to the Glazers at Manchester United to Mel Morris at Derby, the collateral damage caused by bad owners can be a form of trauma for the fans caught up in it. Abramovich, for his part, has been a reasonably popular absentee landlord, hoisting Chelsea from the depths of fourth place in the Premier League in 2003 to third place now, having spent more than £2bn and signed Nemanja Matic twice along the way. Yet even amid the serial rattle of silverware he is yet to answer any of the questions that have been swirling around him for almost two decades. Why football? Why Chelsea? How did you make your money and what exactly do you intend to do with it? And what is it you want here exactly?
Of course, we know why these questions remain unanswered. For decades English football, taking its lead from the British state, simply bent the knee to foreign capital, trusted in the innate virtue of wealth to the point where even to query the source of that wealth became an act of sabotage or treachery. Owners became gods, omnipotent and unshiftable, bending the rules and making the rules, fending off any attempt at scrutiny with armies of lawyers and lobbyists, spin and silence. Only now is football beginning to wake up to the stench of its own money, and yet the furious backpedalling of the Johnson government and the performative outrage of the footballing authorities suggests that the real red line was not morality but PR.
As ever the only real defence against all of this is organisation and resistance. The only reason Stamford Bridge has been kept out of Abramovich’s hands is through the resilience of the Chelsea Pitch Owners group. Fan solidarity, amplified by social media, helped to strangle the European Super League and belatedly force the government into a review of football governance. But the wider issue here is awareness: a realisation that the fight for sporting representation is really a microcosm of the wider struggle taking place across the board.
For all the senseless tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, Russia is not the enemy here. The dissent and protest of its own citizens in the face of a frightening state proves as much. The real faultline is between the powerful and the powerless, the rulers and the ruled. Recognising football’s complicity in war and cruelty also involves recognising that similar corruptions are occurring everywhere one looks.
The club you love has been trying to monetise you ever since you first clapped eyes on it. The bodies entrusted with the health of the sport are interested in player welfare, racism and competitive balance only to the extent that it might curdle their bottom line. The company whose services you engaged will do anything to avoid speaking to you on the phone. The government you voted in secretly despises you. Crisis has a habit of sharpening the contours of our world, of filtering out the noise. And up close an alarm bell sounds an awful lot like a million pennies dropping.

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By faress

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