If you’re a supporter of Chelsea Football Club — I am not — then the developments of this past week are monumental indeed. Monumental, but nowhere near life and death as it is for so many in Ukraine right now.
It is, after all, only sport, only football. And for Roman Abramovich, the multi billionaire owner of the club that ties up a very prominent piece of real estate at Stamford Bridge in London SW6, it is indeed only money.
Since he bought the club in June 2003, he has turned Chelsea FC into a worldwide brand with the same global standing as other football dynasties such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and, in the past decade, Manchester City.
Under his ownership, the club has won 13 major trophies, including the Premier League five times, the Uefa Champions League and the Uefa Europa League twice.
The success has come at a price, with Abramovich lending the club £1.5 billion of his own money to buy some of the best players in the world. Success comes at a price. But the price of his success is painfully obvious now that he is the target of UK government sanctions that effectively have placed the team under Whitehall’s control.
Abramovich is only one of several hundred leading Russian businessmen sanctioned by governments around the world for their allegedly close ties to President Vladimir Putin.
With nations in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation unwilling and unable to be directly involved militarily in the conflict now waging in Ukraine, Abramovich and others are the very public face of deeply biting economic sanctions against the Russian leadership and those who are perceived to be close to them.
Sporting jewel in the crown
For now, Chelsea is up for sale, Abramovich stands to lose the sporting jewel in his crown of business interests, and the future of the club itself is uncertain.
The club is operating under a special licence that means that tickets for its games are no longer for sale, its match day expenses are strictly controlled, its merchandise cannot be sold and the team’s travel arrangements are limited to a £20,000 ceiling. Heaven forbid that manager Thomas Tuchel and his players might have to travel to away games on buses and trains like most fans!
By this weekend, the club could very well have new owners with an array of wealthy investors lining up to purchase Chelsea and satisfy the Premier League’s test of character clauses. Up to last month, Abramovich was a very welcome member of the ownership fraternity — that was until Ukraine crisis triggered.
As things stand right now, the Russian-born owner of Chelsea — he carries Israeli and Portuguese passports as well — is worth about $12 billion, give or take a few hundred million, according to Forbes. The magazine lists him as the world’s 120th richest man in 2021. It’s a remarkable rise to riches for the 53-year-old who spent some of his early years as an orphan back in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In all of the headlines and ink spilt on his enforced sale of Chelsea, little is given to the fact that he donated more money to charity than any other living Russian. Between 1999 and 2013, he gave more than $2.5 billion to worthy causes.
Those billions have been donated to build hospitals, schools and infrastructure in remote and impoverished regions of Russia.
Abramovich was born in Saratov in October 1966. His mother Irina, was a housekeeper and died when he was barely 18 months old. His father, Arkady, was a state office manager and died in an accident when the youngster was just four. Ambamovich was brought up by relatives, spending much of his early life in the Komi Republic.
The young Abramovich quickly realised the value of money when he attended a local state school in the town of Ukhta where he was raised by his paternal uncle, Leib.
The future billionaire’s first taste of the business world came when he was at the local technical college, selling used tyres and automobile parts from his apartment to make extra money.
Later, he attended the Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas in Moscow, before beginning his compulsory army national service in 1974.
Forging a lucrative career
While in the army, he didn’t think a military career was for him, so he used his business acumen to sell gasoline to officers as a sideline. This enabled him to begin saving money for his future ventures, the first of which was Comfort Co-op, selling imported plastic toys. It was a big success and he used the profits to launch his first oil business in the Omsk district.
According to published reports, Roman became friends with entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky, which opened doors for Abramovich. Berezovsky had close links with the former president, Boris Yeltsin, so Abramovich was invited to important networking events and dinners. He even managed to secure an apartment in the Kremlin.
With communism ending and the Cold War over, Russia offered a lucrative territory for those with ties and willing to take risks.
Branching out, he founded several diverse businesses including oil products, pig farms, bodyguard recruitment, sugar, timber and food products. His entrepreneurial spirit enabled him to forge a lucrative career as a businessman.
The reality is that it wasn’t all plain sailing for Abramovich and before becoming one of the richest people on the planet, he faced some tough times. Most notably, his trading firm, Runicom, based in Switzerland, went bankrupt in 2003 and he reportedly had to pay back a loan to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.
He had acquired the large oil company, Sibneft, as a result of Russia’s loans-for-shares programme. President Yeltsin privatised Sibneft and Abramovich and Berezovsky were able to buy out the business for just $100 million — much cheaper than its market value of $600 million. This was the foundation for his vast wealth, as he went on to sell his Sibneft stakes for an estimated $2.5 billion.