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FOOTBALL: The fall of the Roman empire and the rise of a new era for Chelsea

It’s hard for outsiders to understand why so many Chelsea fans still carry a torch for Roman Abramovich.

He is the uber-oligarch, the most famous face of that weird elite group first teased out from the shadows of the broken old Soviet Union that rules Russia to this day.

He was the most successful of that band of billionaires who hit London in the late 1990s, lapping up everything they could lay their hands on and painting the town Château Pétrus wine-red.

Abramovich still can’t quash the rumours that he is Vladimir Putin’s money man, though he’s sued people who dare suggest it. He is clearly cosy with Putin, and even tried to talk him out of invading Ukraine, but he’s a secretive man about whom we still know very little.

Abramovich managed to stay sufficiently downwind until the war broke out, but after that he was no longer welcome in London.

As with Abramovich, Chelsea became collateral damage. The Champions of Europe and the world were forced to knuckle down under draconian sanctions as if they, together with their owner, were complicit in the war.

Fans were barred from attending the matches. Only season-ticket holders could enter, leaving swathes of empty seats in the stands, which were pockmarked by the shame of their owner and his connections to the Kremlin. We all waited for him to come out and condemn Putin’s invasion, but he never did.

Enter the American squillionaire Todd Boehly, who has cobbled together £2.5-billion with his consortium – the immediate number needed to save the club from its relegation to the doldrums of despair. 

Thanks to Boehly, Chelsea’s manager, the German wizard Thomas Tuchel, can once more concentrate on firing up Romelu Lukaku and the team for the FA Cup final against their archenemies, Liverpool, at Wembley on 14 May.  

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel reacts during the English Premier League match between Leeds United and Chelsea FC in Leeds, Britain, on 11 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDREW YATES)

The Abramovich era

Abramovich was my near neighbour for 20 years in Chelsea. Unlike the actual Scarlet Pimpernel, you didn’t meet him in the grand drawing rooms of Cheyne Walk after dark, and you’d never pass him in the street.

Rubbing shoulders with megastars populating London’s most glamorous borough is so much a part of the daily street life here. Eric Clapton, another resident, ambles along unharassed in his flip-flops at all hours and in all weathers. Ditto Ronnie Wood and Bill Wyman – you’d regularly see those Stones out and about.

But Abramovich? Nyet. He’d appear only at The Bridge, his usual poker face breaking out in abundant smiles when Chelsea, the team he’d personally bankrolled, took another trophy. They did that with great regularity.

Now it’s the end of the Roman era. He disappeared as if in a puff of smoke, plucked from the circus without being allowed even a lap of honour to mark him as what the Blues see as the best football club owner in history. Who can forget how he transformed Chelsea from its Cinderella status into the European giant that has come to dominate English football so spectacularly?

Over and over Abramovich gave Chelsea a leg up to conquer all their foes, delivering 19 major trophies, easily totting up the most victories of any English club during the same period. 

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. (Photo: EPA-EFE / ANTHONY ANEX)

Personal link

Chelsea has a deeply personal sentimental value for me and my family. I arrived here from Joburg with a predictable fondness for rugby and little knowledge of football, but you can’t live in London and not be taken in by it.

On match days all of Chelsea comes alive with its supporters, so many working-class lads flooding its glam spaces. Like a river of blue humanity they flow all the way from the Sloane Square tube station down two miles of the King’s Road to Stamford Bridge.

Over time I began to see exactly why it was called the beautiful game. The players are such elegant athletes, their footwork a mesmerising ballet on steroids.

It is often too tribal, and for sure our 16-year-old son is a first-hand example of that: made in Chelsea and born in Chelsea too, he becomes a caveman in blue despite being a generally well-mannered chappy. So powerful was Abramovich’s imprint that there’s never been a time during the kid’s entire life that Chelsea haven’t been champions.

The club would lose hundreds of millions and Abramovich would cover that with his paternal personal interest-free loans to the tune of 1.5 billion – sterling, not roubles. Yes, Abramovich was a true Blue, which made him human, a flesh-and-blood fan. One of us.

We liked Boehly’s low-key appearance three weeks ago against Real Madrid when he chose to sit among us in the lower west stand rather than taking up his executive seat in the gods. No one knows his intentions for the club besides to turn a profit from it.

My son and I will be at the FA Cup final and we will welcome Boehly there. He says he understands the passion people have for the sport and for their team. His words are right – but does he speak Chelsea as well as Abramovich did? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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