From its founding in March 1905 until June 2003, Chelsea Football Club was never a powerhouse. Before their first (and only, before 2003) league title in 1955, they were known as well-supported underachievers, as illustrated when comedian Norman Long wrote the following verse for his 1933 song “The Day Chelsea Won the Cup:”
Now a little while ago I dreamed the most amazing dream.
It tickled me to death when I woke up.
Now you know just how impossible the things we dream of are.
But I dreamed that Chelsea went and won the Cup.
|Abramovich, right, holds Chelsea’s first Champions League trophy in 2012. Photo from Ian MacNicol / Contributor|
Even after 1955, financial crises involving their stadium, Stamford Bridge, meant that the club could never cement its status as a consistent title contender. At the height of their issues in the early 80s, they were relegated to the Second Division, flirting at times with a drop to the Third.
Despite this chequered past, Chelsea currently stands as one of the biggest clubs in world football. Since June 2003, they’ve won five Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, three League Cups, and two Champions Leagues, and they’ve become the 6th most supported club in the world, with a collective 102 million followers on social media as of 2022. So, what happened in June 2003 that caused Chelsea to explode as they have?
It was the purchase of the club by one Roman Abramovich.
Immediately after Abramovich’s purchase, Chelsea immediately got busy in the 2003 summer transfer window. The club spent around £120 million — champions Arsenal and third-place Manchester United spent only £15 million and £20 million respectively) — bringing in big names like Hernán Crespo of Inter Milan and Claude Makélélé of Real Madrid. This big spending continued throughout Abramovich’s reign: from 2003 to 2022, Chelsea spent £1 billion on transfers, third only to Manchester United and Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City. Abramovich has also invested heavily in the club’s youth academy, building the new Cobham facility which has produced England internationals Mason Mount and Reece James, among others. In the 2021 Champions League final, £72 million import Kai Havertz scored the winner for Chelsea. Abramovich, with his spending, has made modern Chelsea.
There’s always been controversy around Abramovich, though, especially in regards to the origins of his wealth. Before Chelsea, Abramovich made his billions in the ‘Wild East’ economic liberalization and privatization of perestroika Russia. He made dealings that his own lawyers would later deem “corrupt” in order to acquire a massively profitable government oil operation. Later, during the bloody transition of power from Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, it’s said that his “friendship” with the latter helped him maintain his wealth, while other oligarchs were forced out of power. Safe to say, then, Abramovich acquired his wealth by shady means at best.
Abramovich has also continued to be a close confidant of Putin. Abramovich was the one who first recommended to Yeltsin that Putin be his successor, Abramovich was the one who interviewed candidates for Putin’s cabinet positions, and Abramovich was the one who suggested Dmitry Medvedev succeed Putin. Thus, thanks to his close relationship with Putin, Abramovich was not just your average oligarch – in fact, he was one of the most influential in Russia.
It’s not just his friendship with Putin that put him in ‘shady’ political waters, though. From 2005 to 2018, Abramovich gave almost $100 million to the right-wing Israeli pro-settlement organization Elad, making up half of their funding over that period of time.
Yet, despite Abramovich’s alignment with Putin and Elad, he remains a legend at Stamford Bridge, even after the recent escalation of the war in Ukraine. In fact, after the British government seized Abramovich’s assets as a part of their sanctions on Russia, Chelsea fans responded by chanting Abramovich’s name during the dedicated minute’s applause in support of Ukraine. While there existed Chelsea fans who were hesitant about Abramovich, a significantly vocal proportion chose to focus on the five Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, five League Cups, and two Champions Leagues and ignore the corrupt money and suspect political alignments that bought them those honors.
Abramovich, then, is living proof that sports washing works. The success he brought to Chelsea, and the joy he brought to the fans have made some forget his shady origins. He’s drawn up the blueprint: take over an ailing, well-supported club; inject millions to bring success; become loved.
This blueprint has been most recently taken on by the Saudi government, which bought Newcastle United in October 2021. One of only seven teams who have won the Premier League since its inception in 1992, the club has been rendered mediocre after years of bad ownership. Until the takeover, the club was fighting an uphill battle against relegation. After the sale, however, Saudi management invested £83 million into buying new players and brought in reputed manager Eddie Howe, thanks to whom the club went from 19th to 11th in the league table. With the atmosphere around the club already improving and Saudi management continuing to make smart personnel decisions — like new Sporting Director Dan Ashworth, another reputed name who helped the English Football Association develop its current (quite successful) youth development program and helped his former club Brighton and Hove Albion establish themselves in the Premier League — all that remains to be seen is how many titles it takes before Newcastle fans start making edits for Mohammed bin Salman and ignore the Saudi government’s own ‘shady’ dealings.
 Sakwa, Richard (2011). The Crisis of Russian Democracy: The Dual State, Factionalism and the Medvedev Succession