As Chelsea football club edge their way to the English premier league championship trophy, it is worth remembering just how the corrupt links between Chelsea’s Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin have made possible Chelsea’s dominance of English football over the last decade and more.
In this excellent piece from July 2013, Matthew Syed of The Times traced the sordid background to Abramovich’s entry to English football and the baleful influence he has exerted over the game ever since.
Syed’s article appeared just as the popularity of English soccer, especially in the US, was growing and along with that the huge profits that now threaten to transform the game beyond recognition.
With the cash registers cha-chinging away like crazy, few now want to be reminded of this seedy history. Putin’s influence over Donald Trump is fair game, it seems, but not his impact on English football.
Bruce Buck, by the way, is Chelsea’s chairman. Boris Berezovsky was a former business partner of Abramovich and an oligarch in his own right. Berezovsky, who called from his exile in London for the overthrow of Vladimir Putin, was involved in a famous courtroom battle with Abramovich in 2012, which you can read about here. He died about a year later, apparently by his own hand.
July 3, 2013 Wednesday
Buck stops here in the story of Abramovich
BY: Matthew Syed
It was kind of Bruce Buck to explain just what a benign influence Roman Abramovich, his boss, has exerted upon football these past ten years. Gracing these pages on Monday, Buck talked glowingly about Abramovich’s “passion for the game” and about how Chelsea “engage in hundreds of community activities at home and abroad”.
But he didn’t stop there. Buoyed, no doubt, by the ecstasies of being chairman of such a progressive and enlightened institution, he ventured into Mother Teresa territory to bring home to readers precisely why Abramovich has put his time and money into a football club in southwest London.
Those of us who thought it may have been about his fear of retribution from Vladimir Putin for his part in the rigged privatisations of the Boris Yeltsin era have had it wrong all these years. The very idea that Abramovich had been keen to buy a high-profile British asset as a shield against possible arrest, a theory bolstered by evidence in the Boris Berezovsky lawsuit last year, was not even mentioned by the American.
No, according to the lawyer who was paid to advise Abramovich on acquisitions in the former Soviet Union before being appointed chairman of Chelsea, the Russian billionaire is all about heart. All about passion.
In particular, he is about “building something sustainable, using the name of Chelsea Football Club to have a positive impact on the young and disadvantaged, and making a difference to communities, not just in London, but around the world”.
You may detect an undercurrent of sarcasm in my tone so far, but, whichever way you look at it, Buck is a remarkable character. For years he has attempted to act as the rational, sane, morally uplifting face of Chelsea Football Club. He has been the man who has talked to the press, sometimes even to the cameras, when worries about the moral basis of Chelsea have been at their most intense.
With his emollient persona and quiet demeanour, he has been of huge value to his boss. If an avuncular chap such as Bruce is so visibly involved with Chelsea, people wonder, why should we be concerned about the origins of the money that is bankrolling the operation? But on Monday in this newspaper, Buck chanced his arm, to my mind just a little too much. He attempted to present a portrait of Chelsea so utterly out of kilter with reality, so carefully idealised, that many people finally saw through the mirage. And they began to focus, perhaps for the first time, on the man who has become Abramovich’s lightning rod.
The lack of context in Buck’s portrait of Chelsea was breathtaking. After all, the money that Abramovich has lavished on Chelsea, and which the American was so keen to eulogise about, was gained in the most grotesque of circumstances. Don’t take my word for it. Jonathan Sumption, the QC for Abramovich in his trial with Berezovsky, admitted as much in open court last year.
The story is simple. In return for handing Abramovich and other oligarchs the mineral wealth of the Russian people at a fraction of its true price, Yeltsin was given a multimillion-pound loan and the use of leading television channels for propaganda in the 1996 presidential campaign. Paul Gregory, the economist, described the quid pro quo as “the largest single heist in corporate history and a lasting emblem of the corruption of modern Russia”.
Abramovich spent much of this on extravagant playthings, including a fleet of yachts, helicopters, his own private Boeing and homes around the world. Chelsea, however, were about kyrsha, the Russian word for protection. It was a purchase motivated more by careful political calculation than by passion.
Chelsea do many admirable things. Buck is right to talk about the charitable work that is undertaken by many Premier League outfits, his own club included. But that should not obscure the wider context in which Chelsea operate, and their underlying financial basis.
The real question is: what does Buck have to say about the origin of the money that is paying his salary? It is all well and good arguing that the Russian’s desire is “to build an institution that will provide everlasting joy and pride to Chelsea fans”, but what about how Abramovich boosted his shareholding in Sibneft, the oil producer, by allegedly manipulating wage payments in order to take over worker-controlled stock and conducting a closed share issue in one of its most profitable subsidiaries? The purpose of a free press is to expose these things. It is about penetrating the bulls*** and shining a light on the true basis of relationships.
The reality is that Abramovich used Chelsea as a pawn in a game of far bigger stakes. It is certainly true – as many Chelsea fans point out – that he is not the first dubious owner to have piled into football, but that is no reason to refrain from highlighting the truth about his past. Neither is it a reason to back off those who surround him, and who have made a living defending him.
Buck likes to present Abramovich (and, by extension, himself) as an enlightened, progressive figure. He argues that the Russian has been a huge force for good in English football. The truth is precisely the opposite.