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The rise and fall of the Roman empire


Former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich celebrates with the Fifa Club World Cup trophy, 12th February 2022. Three weeks later he announced that he was selling the club

“New one out today, still only a pound, get one before Boris puts a sanction on these as well. Come on! Only a pound!”. The fanzine seller standing on the Fulham Road on 2nd April 2022 was doing a roaring trade. It was a bright and sunny spring afternoon, which appeared to be like any other match day. The Chelsea faithful sang as they trooped towards Stamford Bridge from Fulham Broadway tube station for a 3pm kick off against Brentford FC, enjoying its first season in the top tier since 1947.

“We know what we are, we know what we are, champions of Europe, we know what we are,” they chanted. Hawkers sold Chelsea scarves, blue flags and old programmes along the pavement. The smell of burnt onion and burger fat wafted over from a line of fast food vans. But it was the elderly Chelsea fan selling cfcuk, one of the oldest and most respected independent fanzines still going, who was making the real killing. “We sold out last week because there was no programmes, so everyone’s buying these!” he said as a stream of punters dropped a pound coin into his hand for a copy. The front page handily had the prices in pounds, euros, dollars and Russian roubles.

Behind him, an old-style wooden sign advertised the next home fixture in a week’s time, a Champions League quarter final against Real Madrid, testament to the incredible journey the club had been on over the past 20 years. In 2003 Chelsea was on the verge of bankruptcy when a young Russian tycoon called Roman Abramovich stepped in and bought the club. No one knew much about Abramovich. He was a Russian billionaire who had made a fortune in oil and gas investments. He was young – in his mid-thirties at the time of the sale – and held the office of governor of Chukotka, a far-away Russian region in the frozen northeast of the country.

Fireworks explode above Red Square, Moscow, shortly after the USSR gave way to the Russian-led commonwealth in 1991. The new country would offer opportunities to entrepreneurs such as Abramovich

As the takeover went through in the summer of 2003, Abramovich gave one interview, to the BBC, who described him as bearing an “astonishing resemblance to Woody Allen, without the glasses.” He laughed at the idea that he was in it for the money, given that investing in football gave tiny returns. In business terms, trying to make money from football just wasn’t worth the effort. “No, it’s not about making money. I have many much less risky ways of making money than this. I don’t want to throw my money away, but it’s really about having fun and that means success and trophies,” he said. “I know what people say. But there are lots of rich, young people in Russia. We don’t live that long, so we earn it and spend it. I’m realising my dream of owning a top football club. Some will doubt my motives, others will think I’m crazy.”

“It’s all very well sanctioning Roman, but why make the fans suffer? What have we done? We haven’t started no war.”

Abramovich spent money in a way that had never been seen before in British football. Within six weeks of his takeover, Chelsea had laid out £140 million on players. By 2022 the total spend on signings had topped £2 billion. Abramovich’s spree bought 21 trophies. His arrival started something of a billionaires’ arms race as terrified clubs sought their own super-rich owners to compete, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. Abramovich didn’t just revolutionise Chelsea, he revolutionised English and European football too. He gave birth to football’s billionaire age.

Despite the arrival of fellow big spenders, in April 2022 Chelsea were reigning champions of Europe. They were also reigning world champions after having won the Club World Cup just a few months before, in February. Abramovich was there to watch the final in Abu Dhabi and was handed the trophy by the club’s German coach Thomas Tuchel. “There is no doubt it’s for him,” the coach said in his post-match press conference, dedicating the title to Abramovich.

A Chelsea fan holds up a sign ahead of the team’s match against Brentford

Twelve days after the final in Abu Dhabi, Russia launched its brutal invasion of Ukraine. With the war raging, Abramovich decided to sell the club. Shortly afterwards Abramovich was sanctioned by the UK government and the EU, and judged to be “closely associated” with the Kremlin. Abramovich was barred from accessing any money from a sale that was likely to make several billion pounds. The club was allowed to continue playing games under a special licence, but tickets for matches could no longer be sold and merchandise sales were stopped. The government even decided that printing the official match day programme broke sanctions, hence cfcuk’s boost in sales. “It’s terrible,” the fanzine seller said as the stream of customers got louder, and more frequent. “It’s all very well sanctioning Roman, but why make the fans suffer? What have we done? We haven’t started no war.”

Chelsea was in uncharted waters. Never before had a club been sanctioned in this way – although given that billionaire football club owners are often prime ministers, royalty or super-rich captains of industry that wield extraordinary power, it was always a possibility that the political world would encroach on football in some way. Not that it had turned Chelsea fans against Abramovich. “No, we all still love him,” replied the fanzine seller when I asked whether fans blamed Abramovich for the position in which the club now found itself. “Look, no one can prove how he got his money. It’s all hearsay. And I am sick of all these people coming up with these ideas that he’s done this and he’s done that. Prove it, just prove it.”

Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich did not come from money. He was born in Saratov, on the banks of the Volga river, in 1966. His mother died of blood poisoning before he was one and his father was killed in a construction accident when he was four. The young Abramovich was taken to Ukhta, a barren and cold place in northern Russia where the winters could plummet to -49 degrees celsius, to live with his father’s brother and his wife. “To tell the truth I cannot call my childhood bad,” he said of his early years, in the last interview he gave to the British press, to the Observer, in 2006. “In your childhood you can’t compare things: one eats carrots, one eats candy, both taste good. As a child you cannot tell the difference.”

When he was eight he moved to Moscow to live with his grandmother. He was not a great student, or athlete, nor particularly gregarious. Handsome, engineering, although it appears that he never graduated. He did his national service in the Russian army with minimal fuss, leaving it as he had entered it: as a private. When he finished his national service in 1986 he emerged into a changing world. Mikhail Gorbachev had become general secretary of the Politburo, with his reforms of perestroika and glasnost designed to open up a space for personal freedoms as well as private enterprise. Abramovich worked as a mechanic before starting his own business.

By the end of the 1980s he had filled the small Moscow apartment he shared with his first wife with toy dolls and rubber ducks. According to Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins’s biography Abramovich: The Billionaire from Nowhere, he had set up a doll-making company called Uyut and was earning 3,000 to 4,000 roubles a month, a significant sum at the time (the average wage was around 900). He had started and liquidated up to 20 companies during this time – ranging from tyre treading to bodyguard recruitment – incrementally increasing his wealth and hoping that one business would hit the jackpot. It was more Only Fools and Horses than Billions, but then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Boris Yeltsin offered him the opportunity that would change his, and English football’s, fortunes forever.

On 25th December 1991 the hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced by the Russian tricolour. Earlier that day, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned. Boris Yeltsin was now president of a newly independent Russia. The task ahead of him was immense. Russia had to build democratic institutions from scratch as well as to grow a political and civil society that had been neutered by the KGB. It also had to introduce a market economy. Those who were smart, lucky or well-connected spotted the gaps in the system where money was to be made. And the quickest way to make money was in metals and oil.

Abramovich’s business sense took him into the lower reaches of the oil industry, which by 1991 was ripe for exploitation. Oil was an abundant and easily traded commodity, as long as you could secure an export licence. Yet it remains a mystery as to exactly how Abramovich made his money so quickly. One indication of the kind of industry he was involved in lies in an alleged 1992 order issued for his detention over the alleged forging of documents relating to 55 train wagons’ worth of diesel. He has always denied it happened. Still, Abramovich was rich enough a year later to be invited to a special meeting on a yacht in the Caribbean with the new Russian oligarchy.

“Unbeknownst to his former mentor Berezovsky, Abramovich had thrown himself fully behind Putin”

There he met Boris Berezovsky, a businessman closely connected to Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle, aka ‘the Family’. The two men became close and worked on a deal that would make them billions of dollars. “I was . . . very impressed with Mr Abramovich on this trip,” Berezovsky would later say. “He seemed very knowledgeable about the oil business and he was a very charming person.” Berezovsky saw that Abramovich had one skill in particular that he did not. “He is good at appearing to be humble. He is happy to spend days just socialising with important or powerful people if that is what is needed so that he can get closer to them.”

By 1995 the Russian economy was in bad shape and Yeltsin was trailing in the polls. Russia’s second ever presidential election was due to take place the following year and it looked like the incumbent might lose. His main challenger was former communist hardliner Gennady Zyuganov. A win for Zyuganov would unravel Yeltsin’s free-market reforms. The free-market reformers and their backers in the west needed Yeltsin to win at all costs, so his advisers made a deal with the country’s richest men: Get our man back into the Kremlin, and you’ll be rewarded.

Berezovsky collected an election war chest of $120 million, as well as guaranteeing positive coverage for Yeltsin on TV and in the newspapers. That wasn’t hard ‒ Berezovsky owned 49 per cent of the public broadcaster ORT. Thanks in large part to the positive media coverage, Yeltsin won the 1996 election, but the price was high: the now-infamous ‘loans for shares’ programme ‒ a fire-sale privatisation of state assets, including Russia’s marquee oil, nickel and aluminium operations. Almost overnight it made billions for the handful of men who had helped to keep Yeltsin in power. With Berezovsky’s help, Abramovich managed to buy Sibneft, one of Russia’s largest oil companies, for anywhere between $100 million and $250 million, according to various reports, a fraction of what it was really worth. Yukos Oil was bought by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who went on to become Russia’s richest man.

Yeltsin would not serve out his full six-year term. He was a barely functioning alcoholic and a short while after his re-election he underwent a quadruple heart bypass. During his truncated second term, corruption worsened, the 1998 financial crisis saw the rouble devalued and the Russian government default on its debt. With his health fading and his approval ratings at rock bottom, Yeltsin’s thoughts turned to a successor, and in 1999 – at the urging of his inner circle of oligarchs – he appointed a largely unknown insider to be prime minister and anointed successor, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Putin was a former KGB officer stationed in East Germany during the end of the Cold War, who had risen to power thanks to a loyal clique he had maintained from his power base in St Petersburg.

When Yeltsin resigned in an emotional speech live on television, Putin stepped in as acting president and won the subsequent 2000 election. If the oligarchs thought they had found a malleable, easily influenced character, however, they were soon proved wrong. Famously, in July of that year, Putin hosted a meeting of the country’s richest men in a dacha outside Moscow, telling them in no uncertain terms that they would only be able to keep their fortunes if they showed absolute loyalty to him.

Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky were already supporting opposition movements: the former using ORT to criticise Putin; the latter supporting opposition parties and media. Abramovich, though, had already made his move. Unbeknownst to his former mentor Berezovsky, Abramovich had thrown himself fully behind Putin, interviewing prospective cabinet members for the former KGB man’s first government. “I respect him a lot,” Abramovich said of Putin in a rare 1999 interview with the media arm of Russia’s state-owned oil and gas company Gazprom. “Putin is an independent figure. He knows in which direction to lead the country… In my opinion, everything that Putin does, he does almost without making any mistakes.”

Roman Abramovich (left) looks on as Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks during a 2016 meeting with the country’s leading business owners in Sochi, Russia.

After the famous meeting of the oligarchs in July 2000, where Putin laid down the law, Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, said, “The era of the oligarch is over.” Nemtsov would go on to become one of Putin’s fiercest critics and was murdered near the Kremlin in 2015. He was also only partly right. As long as they showed absolute loyalty to Putin, and kept their own political ambitions in check, the oligarchs could, seemingly, keep their fortunes. Part of the “loyalty” deal allegedly involved finding cash for projects Putin thought were important, allegedly including the building of a vast and opulent palace on the Black Sea, dubbed ‘Putin’s Palace’.

The breaking point with Yeltsin’s oligarchs came with the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000. The pride of Russia’s nuclear fleet had malfunctioned and sunk to the bottom of the sea. All 118 sailors on board died. Putin reacted slowly to the tragedy, not immediately returning to Moscow from his holiday in Sochi. Berezovsky’s ORT television station showed pictures of Putin jet-skiing in the sun while devastated relatives of the sailors wept. Putin furiously summoned Berezovsky to the Kremlin. Berezovsky later recounted that he had informed Putin that the negative coverage was actually a positive, as it would look like Russia had a free media: “Putin listened to what I had to say. After I had finished, he produced a file. He then read from it. I do not recall his exact words, but the gist of what was said was that both ORT and I were corrupt. He also accused me of hiring prostitutes to pose as widows and sisters of the sailors killed aboard the Kursk to attack him verbally. These allegations were completely untrue and I told President Putin this.”

Berezovsky claimed that in the meeting, Putin demanded he sold his shares of ORT to the state. Berezovsky refused. A few months later Putin announced in an interview with French newspaper Le Figaro that he wouldn’t tolerate media criticism from outlets owned by oligarchs and that a “cudgel” was waiting for anyone who opposed him. A criminal case was launched into Berezovsky’s stake in state airline Aeroflot. By the time the tycoon was called in for questioning he had already left for France, then the UK, where he remained and claimed political asylum.

Abramovich was now making a permanent break from his former mentor. He travelled to Le Bourget airport, on the outskirts of Paris, to meet with Berezovsky and persuade him to sell up his remaining Russian interests, including the TV station that continued to air stories critical of Putin.

Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky arrives at the high court in London in November 2011 to testify in his case against Roman Abramovich, the largest civil litigation in British history

The details of their conversation became public record thanks to the largest civil litigation in British history, the 2011 Berezovsky vs Abramovich high court trial. In 2005 Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, bought Sibneft for $13.1 billion, making Abramovich one of Russia’s richest men. Berezovsky claimed in court that he had agreed with Abramovich that any profits from the sale of Sibneft should be shared, but that he had later been forced to relinquish his shares in the company to Abramovich for a fraction of their true worth. Abramovich denied that there had ever been a deal with Berezovsky. During the trial, the transcript of their Paris meeting – secretly recorded by Berezovsky’s Georgian business partner Badri Patarkatsishvili – appeared to show Abramovich eager to please Putin. When discussing his potential purchase of ORT, Abramovich said: “Should we sign then so I could take it to Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin], show it to him and say, ‘Here you are, the deal is done’?”

Later that month the sale was agreed for $150 million. “Abramovich said from the very beginning that he was acting as a messenger in agreeing the terms for the state getting control of ORT,” Berezovsky said in his witness statement to the court. “He did not even try to pretend that there was any other agenda.” In court, Berezovsky described how this was the end of his friendship with Abramovich. “I told him: ‘It’s the last time that I will meet you, Roma, I never want to see you again.’”

When Abramovich was later asked by a barrister whether he wanted to buy Berezovsky’s TV channel ORT at Putin’s behest, and whether Putin was assisting him in doing that, Abramovich replied: “President Putin didn’t want the shares. It was not the shares he wanted. He wanted Mr Berezovsky and [his business partner Badri] Patarkatsishvili to leave [the] management of the company and relinquish control [and to] stop influencing the content of the programmes.”

“Berezovsky had claimed Abramovich owed him billions for stakes in various businesses”

The alleged 1992 detention order for forging official documents relating to a consignment of fuel that was travelling from Ukhta to Kaliningrad also came up at the trial. Abramovich had always vehemently denied it had happened. In Midgley and Hutchins’s biography, an anonymous figure high up in Abramovich’s inner circle said that they were told personally: “It never happened.”

The Financial Times, however, reported that Berezovsky’s legal team had done its homework. “Mr Rabinowitz [Berezovsky’s barrister] produced a 1992 order by Moscow prosecutors to detain Mr Abramovich, who was an oil products trader at the time, after 55 train wagons of diesel fuel went missing from the Ukhta oil refinery in northern Russia. Investigators accused Mr Abramovich of forging documents with officials at the refinery. The missing diesel was recovered and Mr Abramovich said no further action was taken. ‘I was released and there were no problems,’ he said.” Berezovsky had claimed Abramovich owed him billions for stakes in various businesses, Sibneft in particular. But Abramovich claimed there was no deal to share the profits of any Sibneft sale and that he had merely paid Berezovsky essentially as a kind of consultant, explained in court as ‘krysha’, a complex Russian word that literally means ‘roof’, but can also mean protection, ice breaking, or access to political connections. This introduced Abramovich to Yeltsin’s inner circle. The court ruled in Abramovich’s favour and found that Berezovsky was an unreliable witness.

The judge believed Abramovich’s well prepared version of events, rather than Berezovksy’s freewheeling and flawed testimony, especially when it came to ORT. The Chelsea owner claimed he was buying the shares simply to avoid problems with Putin in the future and was actually doing Berezovsky – who he thought was going to end up in jail if he carried on as he was – a favour. When the ruling was read out, stating that the evidence didn’t prove that Putin had ordered ORT’s forced sale, the Russian journalists covering the trial burst into laughter. Yet even in victory, the judgement proved something important. “In defending himself, Abramovich had made an important admission,” wrote Masha Gessen while covering the trial for Vanity Fair. “Being in opposition to Putin was dangerous to businesses and the people who ran them, and had been from the earliest days of Putin’s rule.” There was also one other important revelation. Under oath Abramovich had admitted that he had made payments to secure the Sibneft deal. This detail, all but forgotten about at the time, would come back to haunt him.

A year after the trial had finished Berezovsky was found dead on his bathroom floor with a scarf around his neck. The British police suspected suicide. The coroner’s court recorded an open verdict. Jail or death followed more of Yeltsin’s oligarchs and their associates. Badri Patarkatsishvili died in 2008 of a heart attack, in his early fifties. Stephen Curtis, a British lawyer who claimed to have witnessed many of Berezovsky’s versions of events, died in a helicopter crash in 2004. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who had used his wealth to challenge Putin’s power, was jailed in 2003 and had his assets taken by the state. He now lives as an exile in London. In 2017 BuzzFeed published an investigation that claimed US intelligence had pinpointed 14 suspicious deaths linked to the Russian state that had taken place in the UK, despite the British police closing the file on all of them.

In that context, Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea FC made some sense. Perhaps it was his insurance policy, giving him a non-political, non-threatening global profile that would make it harder to destroy him. Perhaps it offered him a gateway to influence in London. Perhaps he did buy Chelsea simply for the hell of it. But this was still largely guesswork. And then a new accusation was made, and a new blockbuster court case followed.

In June 2020 a new book was published containing explosive revelations. Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West by Catherine Belton, the Financial Times’ former Moscow correspondent, was a forensic examination of Putin’s rise and the circle of people around him that both helped Putin come to power and now kept him there. She spoke to Sergei Pugachev, once a member of Putin’s inner circle, who claimed the Russian president had identified Chelsea FC as a potential target for Russian money and influence. “Putin personally told me of his plan to acquire the Chelsea Football Club in order to increase his influence and raise Russia’s profile, not only with the elite but with ordinary British people,” he alleged.

Abramovich denied this was true and, along with several other Putin-linked oligarchs, and the state oil company Rosneft, sued for libel and data protection breaches. “We believe that the lawsuits against Belton and HarperCollins amount to strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs),” said free speech campaign group Index on Censorship in a statement. “SLAPPs are used to drain their targets of as much time, money, and energy as possible in order to bully them into silence.” The plaintiffs all denied that it was a coordinated attempt to shut down valid criticism using the UK’s notorious libel laws.

Abramovich obviously had the financial muscle to launch what had the potential to be a ruinous legal action. But he was now on shifting ground. In March 2018, Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had been poisoned in a suspected assassination attempt in Salisbury. Russia denied involvement in the chemical weapon attack, even though the substance used, Novichok, made Russian state involvement a near certainty. The British government expelled Russian diplomats. And then something unusual happened. There was a delay in renewing Roman Abramovich’s British visa. Eventually Abramovich withdrew his application, flew to Tel Aviv and, as is every Jewish person’s right, requested Israeli citizenship. It was quickly granted. Three days later Chelsea announced the suspension of their new £500 million stadium project “due to the current unfavourable investment climate.”

The high profile activities of Abramovich had long been of interest to Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption activist who had risen to become the most visible, and persecuted, opposition figure in Russia. He had set up his Anti-Corruption Foundation to highlight how state funds had been ransacked for decades by politicians and the oligarchs in their orbit. But just as bad was the west’s complicity. That  money would then end up in France, Switzerland and, especially, London, where it was handled by a pliable industry of British helpers and sycophants who got rich providing legal, banking, real estate or reputation management services to Russian investors.

“Owning a famous football club … you’re going to invite people to your box, everybody wants to know you, everybody wants to chat to you, and you seem respectable” – Chris Bryant

“Abramovich was one of the key people making decisions to put Putin in power and he was a major beneficiary of it in terms of business favours and privatisations,’ said Vladimir Ashurkov, one of the co-founders alongside Navalny of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, who had to flee Russia and was now a political exile in London. In 2021, Navalny and Ashurkov released a list of eight Russian oligarchs, including Abramovich, who they said were “key enablers and beneficiaries of Russian kleptocracy”. Navalny had also called on Abramovich to be sanctioned as far back as 2015, following Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine and its illegal annexation of Crimea.

Navalny had not made many friends in the Russian government.In August 2020 he was poisoned, also with Novichok, and was only saved after being rushed to a specialist hospital in Germany. After showing how it was likely the FSB, the successor to the KGB, had poisoned him, Navalny returned to Russia and was jailed on spurious charges, where he remains to this day.

In December 2021 Abramovich, Belton and HarperCollins settled their case. It was agreed that changes would be made to the book, including the addition of the line: “There is no evidence, beyond the statements of the individuals themselves, supporting the claims made by Pugachev… about the purchase of Chelsea football club.” Each side agreed to pay their own costs but, importantly, the book remained on the shelves. The timing was fortuitous. On 26th February Russia invaded Ukraine with a brutality not seen in Europe since the Balkan wars at the end of the 20th century. There was a public outcry and a re-examination of the UK’s relationship with Russian money. Abramovich’s previous admission in court that he had made payments to secure the original Sibneft deal became pertinent again.

In the House of Commons Labour MP Chris Bryant used parliamentary privilege to quote from a leaked 2019 Home Office document and called for Abramovich’s assets to be seized, including Chelsea FC: “As part of HMG’s [Her Majesty’s Government] Russia strategy aimed at targeting illicit finance and malign activity, Abramovich remains of interest to HMG due to his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices. An example of this is Abramovich admitting in court proceedings that he paid for political influence.”

Two weeks later the British government sanctioned Abramovich, banning him from the country and freezing his assets, including Chelsea FC. The UK Treasury’s financial sanctions notice stated that Abramovich was “a prominent Russian businessman and pro-Kremlin oligarch” who was “associated with a person who is or has been involved in destabilising Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin, with whom Abramovich has had a close relationship for decades.”

A few weeks later I spoke to Bryant over Zoom. “Owning a famous football club, especially if you’ve got very deep pockets… you’re going to invite people to your box, everybody wants to know you, everybody wants to chat to you, and you seem respectable, even though you might… indirectly be involved in supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine,” he said when I asked him what benefit Chelsea would have for Abramovich. He hoped that the sanctions would be a wake-up call for the UK to properly regulate investments in high-profile British assets by problematic regimes. “I think anybody who is associated with allegations of corruption and totalitarianism and human rights abuses should not be able to own a British football club, or for that matter, any cultural institution in the UK.”

After I’d listened to the concerns of Chelsea fans outside Stamford Bridge, who felt that they were being punished for Abramovich’s misdeeds, I asked Bryant whether he felt any sympathy for the position they find themselves in. “Not much,” he replied. “No. I’ve not got much sympathy, I’m afraid.”

Back at the Chelsea v Brentford match, the talk among the Chelsea fans was about what would happen next. Despite being a frozen asset under sanction, Chelsea FC was still an attractive investment.

Everyone I spoke to outside Stamford Bridge praised Abramovich’s impact on Chelsea. Some wrestled with their conscience. But all felt that the transformation the club had undergone trumped everything else. Many, rightly, pointed to the hypocrisy of criticising Chelsea when the English Premier League have allowed a slew of questionable owners to buy football clubs including ex-Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government had been criticised by human rights groups. After a long battle, Newcastle United had just been sold to a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, whose chairman is Mohammed bin Salman, a man US intelligence believes was likely to have ordered the murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“It has been an honour of a lifetime to be a part of this club”

As only season ticket holders and away fans were allowed to attend, Chelsea kicked off against Brentford in a stadium that had large swathes of empty seats. On one stand a large Russian flag had been hung, with the words “The Roman Empire” written across the middle. Incredibly, Chelsea contrived to lose to Brentford 4-1. In a way it proved an important point. The shock result was testament to why investing in the Premier League was so attractive to American billionaires, Gulf royalty, authoritarian leaders and Russian oligarchs alike: the passion, drama and unpredictability wrapped in the authenticity of British working class culture, all beamed into billions of people’s homes worldwide.

Roman Abramovich, former owner of Chelsea

On 30th May Chelsea FC confirmed that it had been sold to a consortium led by the billionaire LA Dodgers part-owner Todd Boehly for £2.5 billion, a record at the time for any sports club anywhere in the world. The proceeds would be used to help Ukrainian victims of the war. “As I hand over Chelsea to its new custodians, I would like to wish them the best of success, both on and off the pitch. It has been an honour of a lifetime to be a part of this club,” Abramovich said in a statement after the sale. He would not receive a penny. “Today’s change of ownership marks a new chapter for Chelsea,” the government said, adding that the sale was “in the best interests of its fans, the club, and the wider football community.”

After a brief cameo at failed peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, Abramovich has continued to fight for his fortune. His property empire in London remains frozen. Two of his luxury yachts have been moved to Turkish waters to avoid being seized. Two of his private jets are grounded in Moscow and Dubai. But Abramovich has proven himself to be both a pragmatic strategist and a ruthless street fighter. The Roman empire may yet rise again.

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