Signings, sackings and success: How Abramovich transformed Chelsea

AFP , Thursday 10 Mar 2022

Roman Abramovich was in Abu Dhabi last month to watch his beloved Chelsea lift the Club World Cup for the first time, celebrating yet more silverware during his trophy-laden two decades in charge.

Chelsea players
Chelsea players celebrating after winning UEFA Champions League title (AFP)

In the space of a few weeks, the Russian billionaire has been cornered into putting the London club up for sale and slapped with sanctions by the UK government throwing the Blues into turmoil.

Speculation has been rife since Russia's invasion of Ukraine over whether the 55-year-old would be included in the targeted action against oligarchs perceived to be close to the Kremlin.

Britain's announcement that Abramovich -- described by the government as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle -- had been sanctioned, came on the day the European and world club champions celebrated their 117th birthday.

Chelsea can continue playing despite the restrictions on its owner but Abramovich's plans to offload the club have been scuppered.

A new licence would have to be granted by the government for Chelsea to be passed into new ownership and no proceeds would go to Abramovich.

The Chelsea of 2022 are a different beast from the under-achieving club he bought in 2003 for just £140 million ($187 million) at a time when Manchester United and Arsenal ruled the roost in the Premier League.

The club were transformed from also-rans teetering on the brink of a financial crisis into one of the richest in the world thanks to the deep pockets of the Russian, who routinely bankrolled blockbuster transfers.

He has been rewarded with a staggering 19 major trophies in his 19-year reign -- changing the face of English and European football.

"For the first time in our 117 years of existence, we can claim to be the world champions and not only that, we are able to say our men's first team has won every major competition they have been able to enter," the club said on its website before the news of sanctions landed on Thursday.

Abramovich's arrival at Stamford Bridge also set a trend for a wave of foreign investment in the Premier League

Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United are all American-owned, Manchester City have won five of the past 10 titles thanks to Abu Dhabi backing, while Newcastle are now bankrolled by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.

- 'Special One' -

One of Abramovich's early masterstrokes was to bring in Jose Mourinho as manager to replace Claudio Ranieri in 2004.

The self-styled "Special One", fresh from Champions League success with Porto, delivered a first league championship since 1955 in his first season and repeated the feat in 2006.

The Portuguese departed in 2007 but despite frequent managerial changes the trophies continued to flood in as the Blues belied the idea that stability breeds success.

A total of 13 men have managed the club over the past 19 years, with Mourinho and Guus Hiddink doing so on two occasions.

The unheralded Roberto Di Matteo succeeded where big-name managers Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti had failed by winning the club's first Champions League with an ageing team in 2012.

Even then the Italian was sacked three months into the following season.

Mourinho's two spells account for half of Chelsea's six league titles in their history, yet Abramovich twice decided to part ways with the Portuguese.

The same fate befell the club's all-time top goalscorer, Frank Lampard, last year but the Russian's ruthless approach continued to reap the rewards.

Within four months of succeeding Lampard, Thomas Tuchel was celebrating the club's second Champions League title on the field with Abramovich in Portugal.

Tuchel's admission that it was the first time the pair had met underlined the hands-off approach Abramovich has taken to the day-to-day running of the club.

Director Marina Granovskaia, a close ally of the owner, took the lead on the recruitment of players and managers but the Russian's vast wealth underpinned two decades of almost unbroken success.

Last month's 2-1 victory against Palmeiras in Abu Dhabi completed Abramovich's trophy collection.

"At least we closed this cycle for him and for his effort and his passion and commitment to the club," said Tuchel. "So it was good timing on this matter."

Chelsea's success under Abramovich has made them one of the giants of European football but they face a future clouded by uncertainty.

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