LONDON: Chelsea’s status among England’s top six clubs and the world’s top 10 is in danger through factors far more significant than events out on a football pitch writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
Roman Abramovich exploded on the international consciousness in 2003 when his purchase of the Blues made him the first of the nouveau riche generation of fabulously wealthy oligarchs to become famous beyond their native Russia.
Abramovich’s ambition and wealth changed the face of not only the English but European football. As former Arsenal executive David Dein said: “”Roman Abramovich parked his Russian tank in our front garden and started firing £50 notes at us.”
In the subsequent 15 years Chelsea have won 15 major trophies at international and national level. The most recent was the FA Cup against Manchester United only last month. But, significantly, Abramovich was not at Wembley to see it.
In the past decade the UK encouraged Russian money by granting “investment visas” to Abramovich and other super-rich members of President Vladimir Putin’s elite.
Then Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine and took a high-profile role in the civil war in Syria. In March Russia agents apparently used a nerve agent to try to assassinate a former spy, Sergei Skripal, in the quiet southern English city of Salisbury.
That triggered diplomatic retaliation which included the UK government freezing the renewal of investment visas for Abramovich and fellow oligarchs.
Hence he missed the FA Cup Final and, last week, scrapped his plan to finance a £1bn new stadium so Chelsea could keep financial pace with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham if not Manchester City. A spokesman blamed the “unfavourable investment climate.”
Abramovich, who is Jewish, has obtained Israeli citizenship under the ‘Law of Return’ which would enable him to visit to UK but only as a tourist.
Speculation is already rife that he is negotiating selling the club as he withdraws his UK investment. This may account for the delay in replacing Antonio Conte who remains manager two weeks since his expected sacking after the FA Cup Final.
The uncertainty is also damaging in terms of the squad: Eden Hazard is a target for Real Madrid, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois wants a return to Spain where he made his name with Atletico and Alvaro Morata may return to Juventus. Chelsea’s bargaining power is weakened because they are not in the Champions League.
When then-president Michel Platini launched financial fair play at UEFA he asked: “If Mr Abramovich takes away his money, what will happen to Chelsea?” The Premier League may be about to find out.