Keith Duggan: Abramovich bought Chelsea because it was buyable

Unanswered questions created a mysteriousness that defined the Chelsea owner

There's a great photograph in circulation of the early days of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea. The gang's all there: a beaming John Terry, future England captain fantastic; Frank 'Lamps' Lampard, another of the golden generation and, though he doesn't know it here, destined to manage the Blues and to join the long list of managers axed under the Abramovich rule; a sunny Eidur Gudjohnnson and, with his arms slung around the club's best assets, the most famous oligarch of them all.

The players are holding the Premier League trophy. They are young, wealthy and communicating a radiant delight that their devotion to football, which began when they were eight, has carried them to this shining moment. A smiling Abramovich avoids the camera's gaze with that curiously read-what-you-wish expression of his. Extravagantly silent throughout his reign as Chelsea owner, Abramovich has traded on the most famous half-smile since Mona Lisa. It has helped to convey the sense of mysteriousness that has defined him. In all of his publicity shots with Chelsea, he carries much the same expression as in the early polaroids from his youth in the declining years of the USSR, when 'London', let alone Chelsea, must have been an unimaginably distant idea.

About a decade ago, the BBC’s John Sweeney - seen and heard on Irish airwaves all week in his despairing dispatches from Ukraine - attempted to get to the heart of how the Russian had made his dosh. His 40 minute film starts on a wet midweek outside Stamford Bridge before he sets out on a byzantine adventure into the oil and aluminium kingdoms of east Russia, charting Abramovich’s acquisition of mega-wealth.

First, he quizzes several Chelsea fans on what they knew about the owner’s wealth. Where did his money come from? Did they care? (‘He’s an arsehole. We’re West ‘Am’ chortles one). The short answer was they didn’t know and didn’t care. Drogba. Robben. Mourinho. Titles. That was the precise currency of the Abramovich era as far as the fans were concerned. As for the ‘Chel-ski’ slurs of opposing fans? They could live with that.


Why should they care? It should be up to the people who govern English football to worry about how the ownership of its clubs is financed. For most people, sport is about escapism and entertainment. The English football league is for millions of casual couch fans and sports channel subscribers, a pleasant and exciting diversion through the winter. For season ticket holders, it’s something more: a lifetime passion, a badge of identity.

Fans are prepared to accept a lot - ticket price hikes, exploitative jersey hawking and the dark machinations of boardroom politics - in the hope that they might live to see their team achieve something fabulous. For decades, being Chelsea meant supporting a club that was hip, vaguely chaotic, occasionally brilliant but more or less guaranteed to break your heart. Then Abramovich swept in, ushered out old Ken Bates and brought with him the winds of change, a stunning run of cups and titles and the new terminology - the Russian billionaire oligarch. It’s always been a vague word, oligarch, whose origins , ‘the rule of the few’ never suited the prevailing image; the yachts, the stupid cars, the wide-boy insolence of those who played the role.


Now that Abramovich is leaving, in a hurry, the questions that have always drifted around in the back of the minds of those interested in football have come screaming into focus. Just who is Abramovich, anyway? What were those years at Stamford Bridge all about? What does he think about English football? About England? About London? And why did he want to own Chelsea football club in the first place?

These are the very questions that Abramovich, by remaining such an inscrutable figure, never had to answer in his 18 years as the crucial power player in one of the world’s biggest sports leagues. You only have to read the barest sketch of Abramovich’s 55 years to gauge that his life has been extraordinary. It leads to a series of obvious questions that anyone would ask the man, given half the chance.

What effect did being orphaned at such a young age have on his attitude to life? What are his memories of living in Siberia with his grandparents? How did he make the leap from selling plastic dolls and other bric-a-brac in late 1980s Moscow to buying Chelsea less than 15 years later? How, out of the 286 million people in the USSR when the curtain fell in 1989, did he emerge as one of the sun kings of the new dispensation?

And when he took control of the oil and aluminium companies that conferred billionaire status on him, did he marvel at the unexpected direction his life had taken? And does he ever wonder about the concept of the Russian oligarchy, which passed Russia’s marvellous wealth of natural and mineral resources into the possession of a chosen few rather than for the benefit of the motherland as a whole? Did he ever stop to wonder how Russia might have flourished and progressed over the past two decades under a different vision of governance? Did he care?

These are the insights Abramovich might have shared by presenting himself for, say, an intimate chat on Desert Island Discs or for any sort of public appearance or utterance. Such silence and reticence in the face of unrelenting fame inevitably casts that person in an enigmatic light. But maybe the truth is much more banal. It seems obvious that at the very least Abramovich possessed an uncommon sharpness and strategic foresight and either an extraordinary imagination or absolutely no imagination at all to have successfully pushed his life into the orbit he has done. Deep down, he may know that if it hadn’t been him, then it would have just been someone else. That all of this happened to him, as much as anything else.

As to why he bought Chelsea? Maybe there’s even a sad ordinariness to that. The indelible quote from the1980s capitalist satire Wall Street is Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gecko snarling, ‘Greed is good.’ But the best line occurs when a desperate Charlie Sheen, playing every man Bud Fox, asks him why he needs to wreck this company.

“Because it’s wreckable, all right?” comes the reply.

The same rationale might have applied to Chelsea. Abramovich bought it because it was buyable. Oligarchs buy stuff until they have everything and then, like Conor McGregor, realise that having it all is not all it’s cracked up to be. After the yachts and jets became boring, he could have bought, say, a Renoir painting. But what, ultimately, could he do with that but look at it - which he could do for free at the national gallery. And 50,000 people would not turn up to cheer him for owning a masterpiece. At least with Chelsea, there was that.

And it was impossible to read how Abramovich even felt about that. You saw Alex Ferguson in the dug-out or the stands and you could tell his mood from half a mile away. Abramovich, in the Chelsea years was muted. Was he stunned and gratified? Or a little bored? He never acted the billionaire, blending in rather than standing out with a wardrobe that suggested he raced around Burton’s in the January sales, grabbed what he could and made do for the year.

He smiled, waved, never said a word. And now he exits. Who knows, given the extreme fluctuations of his life, maybe Abramovich was smart enough to realise that none of it was truly authentic: that whenever he did leave, the Chelsea fans would miss him for about as long as it takes until, well, Saturday comes.

And that when he left, some other owner would come along.