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Fan Ownership Is the Alternative to Football’s Oligarchs

This week's chaos at Chelsea exposes football's complicity in providing cover for unscrupulous billionaires and brutal regimes – the only way to save the game is to fight for fan ownership.

Roman Abramovich was sanctioned this week by the British government. (Credit: Getty Images)

It says everything about the confused psychology of English football that, as Chelsea walked out at Carrow Road on Thursday evening ahead of their 3-1 win against Norwich, the away fans sang Roman Abramovich’s name. This was a man who, earlier in the day, had had his UK assets frozen by the government on account of his alleged links to Russian president Vladimir Putin, one of a number of oligarchs that governments across the West say is associated with the regime leading a brutal invasion of Ukraine.

This week’s decision to sanction Abramovich has left Chelsea, the club he has owned since 2003, unable to sell match tickets or merchandise, transfer or loan players, extend existing contracts and spend prize money or broadcasting revenue. For as long as Abramovich remains under sanction the club will need a special license to continue ‘football-related activities’ and fulfil its fixtures.

Having tried to flog the club in a hurry when it became clear that an asset freeze was in the works, it appears that a sale will still be allowed in the longer term, as long as Abramovich himself doesn’t benefit financially. That will be a complicated process, however, and, with cratering income, no further support from a super-rich owner and commercial partners, like shirt sponsor Three, abandoning ship, there have even been mutterings about administration.

As such, the reality is that being owned by Abramovich has left Chelsea, as an institution, under serious threat. Inevitably, many Chelsea fans, even those who see that he has left the club in an extremely precarious state, struggle to disassociate him from 19 years of unprecedented success.

Under Abramovich’s ownership, Chelsea have won the Premier League five times, the Champions League and Europa League twice each and all other domestic and international silverware. Having poured vast amounts of money into the club following his takeover and during the Jose Mourinho era in the mid-2000s, Abramovich’s wealth has underpinned every aspect of the club’s subsequent rise to the elite of European football.

For much of that time, Abramovich has been fawned over within football as the dream owner, the oligarch to aspire towards, a superficially benign despot with impossibly deep pockets who was happy to bankroll the club while staying mainly in the background. His only appearances tended to be brief; just long enough to give the imperial thumbs-down to underachieving managers or pose awkwardly with a trophy.

Now, following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the government and its ministers are willing to say what many critical and investigative journalists have been saying for decades: he has a ‘close relationship’ with Putin, having made his fortune during what was effectively a huge wealth transfer from the Russian people to a handful of politically connected individuals following the collapse of the Soviet Union. His money was always tainted. He was enigmatic and reserved for a reason.

Likewise, in the era before financial fair play, Abramovich arguably did more to distort football’s economy than anyone. The hyperinflation of transfer fees and wages that has taken place over the last two decades has been influenced in no small part by his enormous expenditure, with Chelsea routinely agreeing record-breaking deals under his ownership and helping to make eight-figure transfer fees the norm.

Ultimately, that expenditure was hugely successful in laundering his reputation, setting the stage for repressive states to get involved in the game. He will be remembered as the forerunner to the era of sportswashing and state-backed takeovers at Manchester City, PSG and Newcastle.

As for what happens now, the cycle of billionaires trading Premier League football clubs like real estate looks set to continue. Among those with a reported interest in Chelsea are British property developer Nick Candy, Turkish businessman Muhsin Bayrak and a consortium fronted by American investor Todd Boehly and Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss.

As owners, compared to Abramovich, they could be good, bad or indifferent. But one thing is clear: as things stand, Chelsea fans are helpless bystanders in a process which could decide the club’s future.

For as long as English football clubs are treated like personal fiefdoms, there will always be a chance that they end up in the wrong hands. For as long as they rely on the largesse and goodwill of the super-rich, they will always be one geopolitical shift, market downturn or disinterested benefactor away from disaster.

Last month, as Chelsea won the Club World Cup and their manager, Thomas Tuchel, dedicated the win to Abramovich, few would have predicted the sequence of events which has now left the club in crisis. What is to stop things from taking a similar turn for other billionaire owners? Who can predict how realignments in world politics might affect the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or any other regime that currently uses football as a means of soft power overseas?

Chelsea fans do have one significant protection in the form of the Chelsea Pitch Owners, the company that holds the freehold of the club’s ground, Stamford Bridge, and the name ‘Chelsea FC’. Founded in the early nineties after a long period of financial instability at the club which left the ground under threat from property developers, the group has thousands of supporter shareholders and any attempt to relocate the club requires 75 per cent to vote in favour.

At a time of intense uncertainty for Chelsea, the group serves as a reminder of the possibilities of community ownership and democratic representation. Even if the club ended up with an exploitative owner, the worst-case scenario of rebranding and franchising could be prevented.

As a further safeguard, the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust has called on the government to ensure that fans are given a golden share as part of any sale. A means of protecting core elements of a club’s heritage such as its name, colours, badge and so on, it is another measure intended to stop a fresh disaster from following in Abramovich’s wake.

Giving fans a golden share was just one of the reforms suggested by the fan-led review of football governance which resulted from the failed European Super League breakaway, the results of which were published back in November. The situation at Chelsea shows that those reforms – including an independent regulator for football, a strengthened owners’ and directors’ test, shadow boards of elected fan representatives and a new corporate governance code – need to be implemented in full as a matter of urgency.

In the long term, however, we need a drastic rethink on who we allow to own our football clubs. Rather than hoping for an obscenely wealthy individual to run our clubs on our behalf, we need a democratic framework – similar to the prevailing model in the Bundesliga – which empowers supporters to make decisions in the best interests of those institutions.

Rather than leaving ownership to billionaires, avoiding difficult questions and hoping for the best, we need to fight for a meaningful stake in the game. If we want to safeguard English football for future generations, the age of oligarchy has to come to an end.