“Someone,” he said, “gave me leaked documents.”
Dating to 2019, the documents were from the Home Office, the UK government body responsible in part for immigration and crime. They dealt with Roman Abramovich, the owner of English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea and probably the country’s most famous oligarch. “Abramovich remains interesting for [the U.K. government] because of its ties to the Russian state and its public association with corrupt activities and practices,” the document states.
“That was almost three years ago,” Bryant said of the documents that day in the Commons. “And yet, remarkably little has been done. Surely Mr. Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country?
Last week, Abramovich announced he was putting Chelsea up for sale. Since buying the club in 2003, Chelsea have won 19 major trophies. This success cost about 1.5 billion pounds (nearly $2 billion) of Abramovich’s personal fortune. A recent financial report from the club said that “the company is dependent on Fordstam Limited”, a holding company controlled by Abramovich which owns Chelsea, “for their continued financial support.”
Abramovich made his money after the fall of the Soviet Union by acquiring billions of dollars worth of oil and other Russian state assets through means corrupted self. Like his fellow oligarchs, he is widely seen as a cog in a kleptocracy overseen by Putin. As Abramovich rushes to sell Chelsea, the message is clear: Putin’s cronies are no longer safe from scrutiny.
In the Premier League, that could raise questions for clubs beyond Chelsea. Since Abramovich’s arrival, the Premier League has only become friendlier to cheeky, spendthrift ownership groups. Whether it’s the Saudi fund that owns Newcastle or the UAE royal family that owns Manchester City, the story is the same: no matter where your money comes from, whether you spend and earn, you become loved.
But now, under threat of sanctions, Abramovich is fleeing the Premier League. Without a doubt, his decades of success changed the sport. Could the sudden and ignominious end to his days at Chelsea change him again?
Speaking hastily on the way out of a recent Commons session, Bryant made it clear he was not targeting the high-profile Abramovich or his beloved club internationally. It was a practical thing; he just got his hands on documents relating to Abramovich.
In response to his criticism of Putin, Bryant faced online abuse for years, including bot-generated attacks and homophobic abuse. Now a new category has emerged, Bryant said: “True Chelsea Football Club lovers who can’t imagine Roman doing anything wrong.”
For Bryant, this proves his point. “In the UK,” he said, “we’ve been infiltrated by Russian money, and we’ve gotten used to it.”
Since buying Chelsea, Abramovich has been a notoriously aloof figure, seemingly happy to do nothing but spend money and pose for pictures while lifting trophies. That distance has only increased since 2018, when Abramovich forfeited renewing his Tier 1 investor visa and lost his legal residency in England.
Over the past week, however, Abramovich has been oddly ubiquitous. Presumably to forestall possible British sanctions and the possible freezing of his assets, Abramovich is furiously trying to get rid of Chelsea. Potential bidders were told they had until March 15 to submit their bids. Hansjoerg Wyss, Swiss billionaire and potential buyer, told the Blick newspaper that Abramovich “is trying to sell all his villas in England” and “wants to get rid of Chelsea quickly”.
But it’s not just the sellout that draws attention to Abramovich. On February 28, a spokesperson for Abramovich claimed that the oligarch was helping talks between Russians and Ukrainians. Alexander Rodnyansky, a Ukrainian film producer, clarified later that he was the one who recruited Abramovich to find a “peaceful resolution”, allegedly with the approval of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In a statement on the sale, Abramovich said he was canceling the £1.5 billion loan he had made to Chelsea and that the “net proceeds” from the sale would go “for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine”. ” The Guardian later heard by a “key figure” that “the fund is for all victims”, meaning that the money “could be used to help Russian soldiers injured during the war”.
This isn’t the first time Abramovich’s philanthropy has helped serve as self-protection. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, is one of many prominent Israeli institutions that signed a letter to the US Ambassador to Israel asking that Abramovich, one of the main donors, be spared sanctions.
But above all, Abramovich’s success with Chelsea has vaccinated him. In his statement announcing the club’s impending sale, Abramovich said: “It was never about business or money for me, but pure passion for the game and the club.” Ahead of the team’s game against Burnley on Saturday, during a moment of appreciation for Ukraine, a group of Chelsea supporters chanted Abramovich’s name.
“The loyalty that fans show to their club is unmatched with anything,” said football journalist Flo Lloyd-Hughes. “It’s blind loyalty. There are often few variables, nuances or distractions. It’s all or nothing. This is exactly why ‘sportswashing’ is such a lucrative tool and why football is paramount for it.
After the invasion, the national teams of several countries, including Poland and Sweden, announced that they would refuse to play the upcoming World Cup qualifying matches against Russia. After dragging its feet, FIFA suspended Russia from World Cup qualifiers. The move raised a question about when boycott threats began and ended in world football.
“If you’re going to refuse to play at Chelsea,” journalist Barry Glendenning recently said on Football Weekly, a popular podcast, “then you better refuse to play at Newcastle, because their owners are bombarding the s — out of the Yemen in a conflict that does not receive as much publicity.
Newcastle’s majority owner is the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund; the president of the PIF is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince. The Premier League said it had been assured that the PIF and the Saudi state are separate entities.
But Glendenning was taking the realistic view: acting with a sense of morality should mean boycotting teams far beyond Chelsea. “We’re going to end up with a very, very small league which will be finished in about a month,” Glendenning said, “because there aren’t too many Premier League clubs that can say ‘Yeah, well, our nose is completely clean.’ ”
Last spring, top clubs from England, Spain and Italy announced plans to form a splinter group called Super League. Fans protested and the Super League collapsed. In its wake, the British government appointed an MP, Tracey Crouch, to investigate the state of English football.
His report included common-sense proposals for improving the sport. Among them: put clubs on sale to ask a simple question from a proposed owner. Are they “of such good character that they can be the custodian of something important to the community”?
When asked if the hard truths of Abramovich’s story could lead to a change in the way the Premier League does business, Bryant replied: “If only. I am pessimist. It took a long time to convince FIFA [to suspend Russia]. Many sports organizations see dollar signs everywhere – or ruble signs. Not that the ruble is worth anything.
Unwittingly, Bryant has made himself the target of Chelsea fans who see him as the cause of the end of the trophy-filled Abramovich era. For what it’s worth, Bryant has no interest in the Premier League. “I am not a footballer. I’m a Welshman so my main interest is rugby,” he said. “But more important than all that, I’m an anti-corruption man.” With that, Bryant hung up and returned to the Commons.
Last week, the day Abramovich announced he was selling Chelsea, the club were away from London playing a game against Luton Town, a club in the second tier of English football.
Luton Town is owned by a fan-run consortium which in 2007 donated 50,000 shares, representing approximately 1% ownership, to an organization called Luton Town Supporters’ Trust. He also gave the trust the club’s image rights. Indeed, it gave the trust real leverage in the club’s future decision-making process. The trust is funded by membership fees, which range from £5 to £10 a year, and ensures that the best interests of Luton Town fans are represented.
Speaking to The Post ahead of the match, Luton Town Supporters’ Trust media officer Kevin Harper said: “I urge every supporter of every football club to always think ahead. What’s going to happen when this particular owner – whether it’s Abramovich or someone else – leaves? While I wouldn’t blame Chelsea fans for enjoying their success – they’re a fantastic team – I would still err on the side of caution. The present is fantastic, but that doesn’t mean much for the future.
Jack Keane, owner of the bar, said each time Abramovich walked in: ‘I was very impressed with this gentleman. He didn’t say much, but he was very obliging to all the Chelsea fans who were here. He waited for everyone to have a picture with him. His security was telling people, ‘Don’t put an arm around him.’ And he was like, ‘No, it’s fine.’ “Abramovich didn’t order a drink, but Keane always insisted he have a bottle of Heineken.
With the threat of sanctions looming, it’s unlikely Abramovich will be back at the Football Factory – or in the United States at all – anytime soon.
The all-male Chelsea fans at this rally kept busy grumbling as their club trailed 2-1 at half-time. One replied: “I’m from the days of hooligans – we don’t talk to journalists.” By the time the game ended in a 3-2 victory at Chelsea, however, they were cheerful enough to discuss Abramovich, providing a window into the power of sports washing and the danger of depriving fans of a product. winner.
“He’s a club legend and he’s been very good for the Premier League,” said Arthur, in his 50s. “The truth is I’m sad that Abramovich is a scapegoat. He’s not taking back the huge amount of money ‘he invested in Chelsea’, ‘and the proceeds are going to war victims’.
For Arthur, Abramovich’s vague statement of support for “victims of war” amounted to criticism of the Russian invasion. “He is dragged through the mud,” he said. “How many people are against Putin? This is not a wise decision for your health.