Sunday 27 February 2022, Chelsea’s goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, misses the penalty kick against his Liverpool’s counterpart thus condemning his team to a burning defeat. This is the EFL final, the most prestigious tournament in British football, now called the Carabao Cup – exotic-sounding name chosen purely for sponsor reasons.
The match between the "Blues" and the "Reds" ends 0-0 at regular and overtime, leading to penalties. The penalties prove to be of a class of their own, the teams end up drawing again, it’s 10 all now. It’s now all on the goalkeepers to score the crucial goal and take the victory home, if they miss and it ends in a draw again, then the match will just have to keep rolling.
Arrizabalaga takes the decisive shot but for Chelsea it is not good news.
On that Sunday Chelsea entered the field without sparing themselves.
Many were the speculations about the team’s physical and moral conditions, with some claiming that they were psychologically broken.
Just the day before, President Roman Abramovich had passed handed his team over. Heavily impacted by Boris Johnson government’s sanctions, set in place in response to Russia’s invesion of the Ukraine, the Russian-Jewish tycoon was banned from London. The tycoon, for years, was the royal capital’s richest, most spendthrift, and most acclaimed citizen but suddenly, after almost twenty years and an enviable palmarès of 21 trophies (including two Champions League) he was forced to sell his beloved football club alongside a lot of his other assets.
But trophies are not the only thing Roman acquired through his 21 year-long Premier League reign, fan adoration was alway very present and very tangible too.
In the Stamford Bridge stadium, home of the Chelsea Football Club, on the upper level of the "Matthew Harding" stand there laid, for many years, a banner. The banner, which had been perpetually hanging since it was first placed recited: "The Roman Empire" - a play on words between the Roman Empire and Roman’s Empire.
The banner was a token of gratitude for Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who had bought Chelsea in 2003 and transformed a then mediocre club into a modern-day football superpower. Winners in repetition of the Premier League title, two-time European champions in less than ten years - first victory in the Champions League comes in 2012, with the Italian coach Roberto Di Matteo; and the second last year.
The team is likely to keep moving at legendary rhythm however, that great banner will likely be removed from the stadium: after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Scrooge has been kicked out of his home and the word "Russia" has become a forbidden word. History repeats itself in funny ways, precisely in ancient Rome, the emperors who fell from grace had to undergo the Damnatio Memoriae, the physical cancellation of their name.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
Let us not think that football is just marginal or insignificant detail - that would be wrong both when talking about the war in Ukraine and in Abramovich's life.
The tycoon’s existence and its football endeavours are so strongly intertwined that the Russian billionaire has even decided to make Stamford Bridge the headquarters of Millhouse Capital, closed and later reopened as MHC - the holding company at the head of his empire.
An Empire built on shares of quotas that can be tracked back to the former Soviet State industry: the oil company Sibneft, the Aeroflot airline, and aluminium giant Rusal. Equity investments which Roman slowly over the years, re-sold over to his oligarch friends, one being Oleg Deripaska – Russia’s largest industrialist; or selling them back directly to the State, where he had bought them from years before. These operations made Abramovich the richest expat in London: from the sole sale of Sibneft to Gazprom – Russia’s state-owned gas giant which also ended up in the crossfire of Western sanctions, the tycoon collected 12 a whopping billion dollars. Now, in the wake of the West's ostracism of all things Russian, Roman is quickly disposing of his properties in London, selling them not the highest, but just any bidder. In addition to his Chelsea Football club, the oligarch has also had to put up for sale his luxurious Kensington Palace mansion which neighbours Prince William and Kate Middleton no less!
I’M YOUR FATHER, CALL ME BORIS
Just like all modern-day oligarchs coming from post-communist Russia, Roman too finds his fortune in the oil and mineral industries. Not just any fortune, we’re talking about a 14.5 billion dollars in capital as estimated by Forbes in 2021, which places the Russian man steadily in the top 100 wealthiest people in the world. The origins of Abramovich's fortune go back many years. We would need the "Back to the Future" DeLorean steering wheel to go 30 years back in time in a country that you can never spot on any modern Atlas: Soviet Union and the year is 1985. At the time, Sting was singing his song "Russians": 6 more years and it will be Russia - no one knows or could even imagine the changes the future holds.
Mikhail Gorbachev, remembered as the last leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and head of the Communist Party, is now being appointed head of State, opening up to the “Great Reformation Era,” otherwise known as “Perestroika.” With the Perestroika reform, Gorbachev had the aim of advancing the Country, both financially and technologically, starting a never-before-seen process of privatization that would benefit markets and consumers alike. Soon, individual and independent businesses start sprouting across the country. The market opens its door wide: when communism collapses and the Country ends up falling into the hands of Boris Yeltsin, the state gets literally besieged. Russia’s race to riches begins here: the Soviet industries start crumbling and end up being given away for a few rubles apiece and being grabbed by smart entrepreneurs. In this race there, amongst others, there is Roman Abramovich, which strong in his 25 years of age and his bright business acumen, starts climbing the steep ladder of success. At this time Roman’s putative father is Boris Berezovsky, the forerunner of all oligarchs.
Berezovskij, man of prominence in Russia’s communist era, in all political, and upper-class circles, a Moscovite Berlusconi, owner of media outlets and television channels, politician and maneuverer, puppeteer behind the election of the controversial president Boris Yeltsin. In 1995 (the year in which the Russian astronaut Polyakov beats the record for the longer stay in space - 366 days), Boris takes Roman under his wing and promises to teach him everything there is to teach. After various very lucky investments, Boris and Roman manage to bank hundreds of millions of dollars together, consolidating their friendship and business partnership but not without problems though. Berezovskij takes in Abramovich only to later repudiate him. The two men will become enemies, by virtue of their common origins: they are both Russian Jews, a sort of problematic state of being in the post-Soviet era, embodied by Misha Vainberg, the protagonist of the novel Absurdistan by Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Shteyngart.
THROUGH THE LOOPS OF THE VOLGA
"It was the year of the World Cup in 1966, the queen of England was Pele", said Antonello Venditti in 1986. Forty years later, to crowned the King of London would not have been a footballer, but a Russian billionaire.
The great Roman singer could have not imagined that in that same year, 1966, in the faraway city of Saratov, which in the Tatar language translates to “yellow mountain” a new “King” was being born. Saratov is the 17th biggest city in Russia by both population density and expansion. Its privileged location on the river Volga (longest river in Europe) allows the city to be an essential harbour for import-export, commerce, and development of all kinds. Additionally, Saratov is located strategically only 850 km away from Moscow’s splendid Red Square – the Country’s political, religious, and cultural hub. The new “King” is Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich, which comes into the world in a family of Jewish tradition and religion – his name, which is reminiscent of Israel, Byzantium, and the glory of ancient Rome, seems to carry importance from the very beginning, almost as if he was predestined to reach greatness.
But life takes unthinkable turns and still very young, he is left orphaned. After the death of both of his parents, like many of his peers, he finds refuge in the Soviet army and serves in the military force of Great Mother Russia. He later begins to work in various companies in the oil industry, to then take a leap of faith and branch out on his own. In hindsight, a very smart move to make, which lead him to later establish his own prolific oil businesses – yes, that’s plural. “The man who’s never satisfied” couldn’t just make do with one oil company, he founded five. He soon starts to get into all the “right” circles, which in turn allows him to get the Kremlin’s “blessings” to start getting personally involved in and investing his capital in various prominent Russian companies too, among them Sibneft and Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline.
The business deals closed, the important hands shaken, the great investments made, the millions of dollars earnt and spent, beluga caviar on blinis served on shiny silver platters, and all the best ice-cold vodka money can buy have an alluring, enticing charm impossible to resist and a taste so sweet is impossible to be deprived of and they all feel like a reward for a less than easy childhood.
The new millennium opens new doors of incredible possibilities to the Saratov-born tycoon. His new chapter takes him (in a sort of self-exile, after the start of Putin's "war on the oligarchs") to a land where he could be free again, England.
Still very young, he rightfully earns a premium spot – 11th place - in the list of the richest and most influential people in the world which of course, leaves him wanting even more. What do you do when you have billions of dollars and you want to embark in a new and exciting adventure? Why, you buy a football team of course! Not just any team, in June 2003 Roman Abramovich fulfils his dream of owning a football team by acquiring the Chelsea Football Club in London, bringing, over the years, a tired and starless team to rise up to the Olympus of football.
This is done by investing millions in the team’s prospects and taking in football-gods of the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola, Hernán Crespo, Andriy Shevchenko, to then move to Antonio Conte and Romelo Lukaku - also proving to the world that in "great football" there is, and will always be, a little bit of Italy.
It is "The Abramovich Effect" - the two sides of the same medal: Abramovich football president and the Abramovich benefactor. The Russian oligarch has helped opening ‘The Holocaust Galleries” at London’s foremost war institute, the Imperial War Museum. Abramovich has been continuously putting to good use the incredible mediatic reach and power of its Chelsea Foundation, managing with it, to spread messages of respect, tolerance and peace. Moreover, he is President of the Association of Jewish Communities of Russia, as well as patron of another great museum, the Jewish Museum in Moscow.
But not all that glitters is gold. There is also a much less noble side to these endeavours: charity as a media weapon for self-promotion and image cleansing. From Roman we have learnt a lot, but also that football can be used as a shield: being in the Premier League is a policy, an insurance that can protect individuals against invasion from politics and judiciary agents. Nobody can touch a president loved, adored by millions of fans: this worked for years, until the war broke out in Ukraine.
In the autumn of 2007, on a Sunday in October, Abramovich and Berezovsky, who in the meantime had become sworn-enemies and have also started court battles, find themselves face to face in Knightsbridge, in the heart of London’s luxury shopping. the patron of the Chelsea Football Team was shopping at Hermes's; his mentor was in the boutique next door - Dolce & Gabbana. A crowd of onlookers immediately formed before them, because the street was practically occupied by dozens of bodyguards frowning at each other and end up in fist-fight, all documented on cameras for national and international broadcasting.
The moment feels like a clash between gangsters, between rival gangs in the degraded suburbs of some Third World city. Instead, it is the centre of London: the British capital which in that setting, ends up looking a lot like Al Capone's Chicago of the 1930s. The palpable tension is finally eased by elderly Berezovsky who leaves the shop and hands a package to Abramovich, as a "goodwill friendship gesture". Abramovich lets it drop to the ground and leaves. A very “Gangs of New York” scene. The folkloristic episode, however, is the photograph of what London was like in the early 2000s: a Russian colony, where oligarchs ruled. So much so that the city’s got an unofficial nickname: Londongrad.
The term Londongrad stood to describe unbridled pomp exhibited without restraint or decency, a vulgar and forced opulence of an upper class underlined with crime. Today this is no longer the case, or at least it is much less so. Londongrad’s pioneer, Abramovich, is now pulling back, retreating.
2018 is the cursed year for Abramovich and the beginning of his problems in England. In the month of March of four years ago, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned by the nerve agent Novichok (a poisonous agent that affects the activity of the nervous system, often causing death within a few seconds). Sergei and his daughter, after spending months in critical conditions, got discharged from intensive care while Alexander Litvinenko won’t be as lucky. Litvinenko, a former Russian secret-service agent turned UK spy, gets fatally poisoned by polonium planted in his meal at a sushi restaurant in London. The British Government treats the event as an attack on the Nation. They will publicly blame Russia for the murders and attempted murders, while at the same time, expelling over 100 diplomats and revoking Visas to many Russian prominent figures.
Roman Abramovich loses the right to remain in the country where he has invested huge amounts of money and where he has settled with his family. He loses the right to move freely and also will not be able to attend matches at his Chelsea stadium.
All the years of charitable donations now have paid off as Roman, appealing to the "Law of Return" finds solidarity and above all, a new passport in Israel, thus becoming the richest citizen in the country.
On a February 2022 morning the world wakes up with Putin's Russia invading Ukraine. With that, epoch of the oligarchs starts its rapid decline. An elusive and ambiguous character - Abramovich wears the dupleface suit of a political refugee in London and that of the Russian patriot in Moscow, which earned him the title of Knight of the Order of Honor.
His wax masks, suddenly, start melting and are no longer appreciated: after having opened its doors to all the “Abramovichs” of Russia, Great Britain went on a crusade against the Moscow government and all its affiliates. It is speculated that Roman Abramovich has close ties with the Kremlin and the President Vladimir Putin. There are some who even claim that the Russian president considers him his godson.
Millionaire divorces, seven children, models always by his side, adventures (of dubious nature) in politics - in 1999 he became Governor of the province of Chukotka, after billions upon billions of dollars lost and gained in oil, football and (some) shady business, Abramovich is still a prominent name in the media, guaranteed attention for tabloids and all main British (and international) newspapers – But could the end of the “Abramovich Era” be near?
A Russian proverb says:
There are no barriers for a rich man.
WINDS OF WAR
And yes, Abramovich is still very rich. The immovable assets, houses and football clubs, he was forced to sell. Everything else though, he has moved elsewhere: the yachts are already in countries outside the sanction clutches. His two super boats, the pharaonic Eclipse, worth 1 billion dollars and the "low cost" Solaris, which is worth just 600 thousand, are at anchor in the Caribbean and Balearics respectively. And it is likely that the 2 armoured Mercedes limousines, Maybach 62, have already left London destination unknown (but safe) together with the $1 million racing Ferrari FXX.
The tycoon also tried mediating between Russia and the West, his two homes, sitting around diplomatic round tables. However, right now the war continues and there’s no knowing when it will end. Abramovich awaits, quietly, to come back into vogue.