The Roman Empire: Russian oligarchs and modern football

“Poverty is a sin that the rich never forgive”. This famous Russian proverb has an overarching meaning pointing towards wealth and power. These are elements of everyday life that come as a concern to many people in today’s modern, conflicted global landscape. The ongoing tensions between opposite sides of the world have the potential to embroil millions of innocent bystanders, with thinly veiled ideologies threatening the ever-present menace of conflict. While those in power attempt to ensure that peace is upheld, others scrap for wealth, which in particular proves to be an attractive proposition. Beneath the grand power-plays holding together the very seams of society lie those with great ambitions of their own. The Russian oligarchs are infamously no different.

For all the icy glances exchanged across the globe, the East and West can’t deny that they are firmly entrenched into the other’s society. A number of Russian oligarchs in Britain have managed to firmly integrate themselves into positions of power – namely a couple of the country’s most prominent football clubs. Roman Abramovich stands tall at the helm of Chelsea Football Club, with various signage dotted around Stamford Bridge reinforcing the prominent links the club holds with Russia.

Alisher Usmanov holds a 30 per cent stake in Arsenal, whilst on the south coast Maxim Denim has played a large role in manipulating Bournemouth’s spectacular rise to the Premier League. All three figures are amongst Russia’s largest benefactors, although Abramovich and Usmanov particularly make the headlines for their contrasting roles in the fortunes of Chelsea and Arsenal in recent years. While Denim may be a notoriously private figure, his history as a former trade and petrochemical magnate allowed him to invest in Bournemouth and steer them into a battling top-flight outfit. The south coast side have certainly reaped the rewards from his fortune.

The intentions of the Russian trio, on the surface, may be to help bring success to their respective grounds, but the actual, rather more disturbing truth may lie beneath. Russia’s desire to hold some form of influence over Western culture cannot be denied – some of President Putin’s closest allies travel to parts of Europe for differing reasons, whether it be to gain power, or flee from the regime in their home country.

Earlier this year, Chelsea owner Abramovich was placed on the US government’s list of Russians who have benefited from Putin’s regime. But rumours of a fractured relationship between Abramovich and Putin make this a very confusing twist in the tale. Rumours are rife that the oligarch’s investment in southwest London was simply to resist the potential retribution from Russia’s president, after Abramovich’s controversial role in the Boris Yeltsin era. Further theories state that Chelsea’s owner looked to invest abroad to use as a defence against potential arrest. Beneath the layers of success and interchangeable managers exists a grander scheme played out in the club’s boardroom, which, largely unaware to supporters, has a drastic effect on the world’s geopolitical landscape.

Many portraits of Abramovich tend to focus around the positive change he has brought about at Stamford Bridge, his investment undoubtedly introducing some of the finest players to grace the Premier League into the limelight. But whilst the opportunity is there to spend lavishly on talent, the way that Abramovich has come about his fortune is particularly grotesque. Above the surface, the club contributes superbly to the local community, and the squad largely represents the badge with the same unbridled passion demonstrated by former manager Antonio Conte on the sidelines. But if you dig a little deeper into the club’s finances, and the murky history of its Russian owner, there exists an undeniable stain on English football that brings with it unnecessary dispute and shocking accounts that should never be associated with the beautiful game.

Abramovich is certainly not the only crooked figure to have invested into the sport, however. The joint venture between Alisher Usmanov and Everton’s largest shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, is another cause for concern. The two figures are long-time business partners, and Everton’s training complex also has close associations with one of Usmanov’s companies. Usmanov’s influence at Arsenal, as well as his close connections with the hierarchy at Goodison Park, potentially could stand him in good stead to gain more power for himself, further making him next to untouchable in the eyes of the authorities.

The safety awarded through investing questionably earned income into football ventures is perverse. The foundation of the sport is based on respect, and it is increasingly difficult to accept some of the world’s largest clubs being further elevated to success after investment from those who conduct deals well away from the public eye.

The question is whether supporters will continue to accept the involvement of oligarchs in football, and continue to allow them to shape the boundaries of the modern game. The more active influence that certain fan bases hold in recent years provides much-needed power to the people; those who regularly spend their hard earned money to watch their team through thick and thin. The issues of rising ticket prices, poor management, and safety in stadiums have all been continuously raised and dealt with, and now it is time to deal with the high-profile businessmen with clear ulterior motives.

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Chelsea Football Club should not just be a safe harbour for an oligarch fearing a backlash from his home country. It should act as a pinnacle of fair play and everything that is so endearing about the most popular sport in the world. It is the same with every football club stretching across the vast expanse of the world – many are now viewed as opportunities, money pits available for other means, whilst supporters crowd into bustling stadiums blissfully unaware.

Transparency is crucial for those spending their hard earned wages to watch a premium standard of football on Saturday. Those flooding into Stamford Bridge on a match day will no doubt express their satisfaction at times with how Chelsea is run behind the scenes – there is blatantly vast commercial interest in the club, and the important figures who run the show sit high in the stands, proudly casting an eye over the multi-million pound squads they have assembled. There can be no denying the positive effect that Abramovich has had on the club – since his arrival, Chelsea have become infinitely more successful and a certified global super-club. On the other hand, the friction between Chelsea’s senior executives and managerial teams often means that some of the sport’s most elite tacticians find themselves departing the capital within a matter of years. Conte’s recent departure a stark case in point. With the merry-go-round of managers, there remains only one constant: the Russian billionaire often shown silently skulking inside the director’s box. Maybe he’s pondering on just how long his dream at Chelsea will be allowed to remain intact?

British Prime Minister Theresa May, amid heightened tensions with Russia, has publically threatened to strip Russian tycoons of their assets in this country, leaving Abramovich firmly exposed and thrust into the spotlight. The Chelsea owner has been named as one of Vladimir Putin’s closest associates, with Putin reportedly close to leaving politics in 2008 amid rumours he wanted a more lavish lifestyle, not too dissimilar from Abramovich’s expensive habits. However, Abramovich is certainly a popular man in Chelsea but reportedly not back in his home country – the protection afforded at Stamford Bridge allowing the oligarch to prolong his comfortable life on British shores.

The connection between club and owner will be a tough one to break down. The astronomical demands from both players and agents can only be sated via the deep pockets of club owners willing to spend heavily and gamble on success. The beautiful game is ever-changing, and the price tags assigned to some of the world’s finest talents are only increasing. The £200 million deal to take Neymar to Paris, albeit with all of its shady undertones, shook the foundations of the sport to its very core whilst reshaping financial boundaries. Suddenly every player has a price, and every club with sizeable ambitions will use all their resources to make it happen.

Manchester City are rapidly becoming a global footballing superpower, expecting to compete with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona for the foreseeable future. Chelsea are also in and around this elite group, having previously tasted Champions League success in 2012. The key behind a successful club is its owner, and Abramovich is undoubtedly the key figure behind Chelsea’s resurgence since his investment at Stamford Bridge in 2003. Strangely, some of football’s most dominant names are controlled by businessmen who come under constant criticism. Manchester City’s owners originate from Abu Dhabi, amid controversies of economic exploitation from Sheik Mansour’s half-brother, Sheik Khalifa, the absolute monarch of the United Arab Emirates. Manchester United’s Glazer Family have been linked with high-profile donations to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And, of course, Roman Abramovich is unable to shake off the drama surrounding Russia currently, because he is deeply embroiled in it.

The examples above only go to show that with billionaire ownership of the world’s largest football clubs often comes controversy. Not everybody will be tolerant of how clubs are shadily run, and they shouldn’t be. The last thing the sport’s largest institutions need is insecurity, as the beautiful game demands more and more with each passing season. The only way to truly do good by supporters and those with vested interests is to begin to weed out those who are unhealthy for the game: the businessmen conducting hidden negotiations, those using clubs as money-making machines, and the oligarchs who bring with them unwanted reminders of a geopolitical landscape that threatens to pull apart western civilization at its very seams.

By Dan Davis

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