June 1, 2003 - A day when the face of English Football would change dramatically. Not that the sport would be conceived any differently, but the English Premier League, the blue-chip of european football, would have a'foreigner out of nowhere' at its doorstep, ready to challenge with his dreams and ambitions. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club.
Let’s first look a little back in time before that day, to understand what kind of turmoil Chelsea Football Club was facing before its acquisition.By the late 90’s, Chelsea enjoyed some domestic and european success under another ambitious owner, Ken Bates, with a well assembled team.The club landed a major trophy after close to 25 years, in 1996. The on-field success was coupled with some positive movement on the off-field legal battles front.The club was finally able to renovate most parts of the stadium, turning it into an all-seater one. The brand of football was attractive to most, the players,including a certain italian wizard, received adulation from pundits and Chelsea would hover around in the mid-table region before finally qualifying for the biggest competition in Europe. But, the on-field and off-field momentum was gained at a cost. The cost to build a multi-tier West Stand and the payroll for the big names had driven the club deep into debts,adding to the existing ones.
The financial health of the club had turned from bad to worse.A season in champions league was not enough to provide any respite.It is said that the club had no money to pay Roberto Di Matteo when he retired*. 75m GBP were the annual repayment costs for the Eurobond.The club had a plan in place to sell all the big names by 2003 and restructure the bond.Earning a place in Champions league was absolutely vital, as failing to do so would make it impossible to avert a financial crisis. No matter what, the club had dark days ahead of itself and a downward spiral hinging on the result of a match. And in an eventful afternoon on the last day of 2002-03 season, Jesper Gronkjaer confirmed the club’s participation in the next year’s champions league,also a key factor in the take over, with a winner against Liverpool in the ’20 million match’.
- *As expected, Di Matteo did not put any pressure and was ready to accept the money when the club could pay. A year later he bought shares worth that amount instead.
Roman Abramovich had fallen in love with football after watching the Madrid- United quarterfinal in 2002 champions league. He had the whims and ambition of a typical businessman, and immediately had the desire to buy a football club.Roman wanted to buy a club where he could create a huge brand, a new empire. With that in mind, London was the favored destination for his investment, as a political-financial capital would provide far many incentives to creating a brand than any other would. This discarded Aston Villa, for sale at that time, or even Manchester United. Tottenham, Fulham and Chelsea were the viable options in the list. Thanks to tottenham’s lack of interest in even meeting him and the financial turmoil at SW6, Roman found in Chelsea the perfect club to invest in. Predictably the troubled board members of Chelsea and an ardent Roman struck a deal within 20 minutes, resulting in Roman gradually* buying the club for 140m with 60 for the club and 80 for buying the debt. Ken Bates gladly gave up his ownership, to get the 17m share from the sale of the club he bought for a pound**.Thus,Chelsea FC was not only safe but also in the hands of the richest owner in england.
*Initially just more than 50% of the club was bought and after months the entire 100%.
**Though he inherited a debt of 1.5m in 1982.
The Incoming Tide
Until then, the league was witnessing a continued domination of Manchester United and Arsenal. But the big two, the fans and especially the english media were in for a huge surprise. Roman made his intentions perfectly clear by spending an astounding figure of £140m pounds on players to help the retained Italian manager Claudio Ranieri aim for a shot at the title. The previous highest expenditure in a single window was far less than even half of it by Manchester United in 2000-01 season. Everyone was taken aback by the power of money at Chelsea’s disposal. Chelsea’s presence now would partially inflate the transfer market much to the ire of other participants. The targets were also set. Only the best would suffice.The stamford bridge faithful could now realistically dream for the trophy that deserted the club half a century back- the top division League Title.
But they would have to wait.It was post the first season and due to the decisions thereafter, that the club started gaining the most negative publicity. After getting to spend more than £150m in a single season, Ranieri fell short of expectations set by the new boss. He lost the league title by 11 points to the invincible Arsenal. The consequence- first manager to be fired in Roman Era. But the blueprint was set. The success should match the expenditures and ambitions of the board. And more importantly, success had to be instantaneous.
Match made in heaven.
If the club has to be defined by a single name, it can easily be Jose Mourinho. Indeed, because the impression made by him on Chelsea under Roman would last for years to come.He was the next manager to be appointed by Roman and the one who defied all odds and guided FC Porto to Champions League glory a year before. The board was quick to target him for the managerial vacancy at Stamford Bridge, even if the man himself was initially reluctant.
Reportedly he said, "Liverpool are a team that interests everyone and Chelsea does not interest me so much because it is a new project with lots of money invested in it.I think it is a project which, if the club fail to win everything, then Abramovich could retire and take the money out of the club. It's an uncertain project.It is interesting for a coach to have the money to hire quality players but you never know if a project like this will bring success."
Whether it was because of liverpool appointing Benitez and not Jose or the fact that no manager could ever refuse the idea of creating a team with millions to spend, Chelsea eventually ended up with Jose Mourinho as the manager.
Jose Mourinho,for a manager was young, just like the era of Chelsea under Roman. Both had many things in common. Both were highly ambitious, success oriented and desperately wanted to make a mark in football. Roman allocated the same amount of resources to Jose as to his predecessor. For a second year running, the club spent more than a £100m.Figures, only heard in corporate merger and acquisitions were now being splashed out for football players. The overhaul at Chelsea was overwhelming even to some of the fans.
Quickly, Jose Mourinho would imbibe himself deep into the hearts of the Stamford Bridge faithful. Around the english stars John Terry and Frank Lampard, Jose mourinho constructed a team, a group of world class players who all matched the dynamic nature of the revolution at Chelsea and the ambitions of the owner. He managed to create a sense of togetherness at Stamford Bridge with his man management and self-confidence. An astute manager with his young team, won the League Cup, before going on to win for the club a League Title after 50 years.The owner was just as happy as the fans. But now the world had turned against the club.
This was not the first time that a club had broken records to buy players, and certainly not the last time. Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Lazio had all broken records previously. But not Chelsea.In England, the template for football would be of local players playing for the club and this in turn would buy the unconditional loyalty of the local fans. Club support was a matter of heredity. A club would generally enjoy a golden era when a group of talented players(mostly english) won titles or fans over. On this success particularly, would the club build it’s history, as success would bring in more money and fans. That happened with Manchester United, Liverpool, Newcastle amongst many others.
But here was a club, which had just tasted success for a few years, after decades, and all of a sudden had the luxury of a wealthy owner who was confronting the mighty old clubs. The clubs followed by millions were now being asked questions by the one which had just thousands of fans from West Central London and comparatively fewer in other parts of the world. People found it difficult to justify the success of Chelsea, as the competition was all of a sudden unfair to them, because no owner could afford what Roman could. If the transfer fees matched, far more salaries were offered.Many believed, Chelsea was spared of the ordeal or quest for success, which defined the history of other big clubs and catapulted to a golden era.The basic economics behind what already used to define a club as big or small- the ability to spend- all of sudden turned to Chelsea’s favor. Everyone felt Chelsea did not ‘deserve’ it. This reality was difficult to accept, and thus started the claims of ‘Bought Success’ and ‘Plastic Club’.Add to that a manager who was brazen in all his interviews and defiant to prove that he is the best,.
The brand of football slowly being nurtured at Chelsea did not help ease matters either. Initially, the blue-print was much success oriented and less entertainment oriented.The increasing tactics of not going for more goals but ensuring a victory did not please the neutrals. But this did not matter to the blue fans at that point of time. All that was awaited was the glittering silverware. A breed of aboriginal blue fans, who were suddenly overlooked by the media, knew the club’s struggles and felt the pain of waiting for so many years.They were there when the club stayed in second division for years. They were there when northern clubs dominated for a years.After lifting the league title for the first time in 50 years, they had their dreams come true all thanks to this one foreigner. A billionaire who went all-in to realize their dreams. He was now one of them.
Chelsea FC - A Success Machine.
What Jose Mourinho had reportedly claimed in his initial views about project Chelsea, was reflected repeatedly by the english media. Everyone was of the opinion that Chelsea FC was just another affair for Roman and there could only be two outcomes in the near future- that he grows tired after experiencing failures or that he would lose his interest after winning everything. Everyone had their reservations about a long term relationship between the club and the owner.
These fears mildly felt by the supporters were repeatedly dashed away by the owner in different ways like another spending spree or active participation with the team members and the club affairs.
When Roman bought the club, he at least had a vision of what kind of empire he wanted to build. A club which not only enjoys perennial success but also in a way that is attractive and pleasing to the eye. This would normally be the dream of any football club though, history suggests that only few clubs had successfully combined the two approaches, but Roman was adamant on achieving both.
Roman first splashed out money as no single owner would.Players would be offered salaries that were matched by no other club in the world. Money was flowing at Stamford Bridge. But his expectations were as stubborn as his commitment. Claudio Ranieri’s dismissal was the first sign of the stringent rules to be established at SB. In spite of having held sway at the bridge for the club’s most successful three years, Jose Mourinho was relieved of his duties for not only failing to win the coveted Champions League but also for the way Chelsea had been playing lately.There was an evident lack of flair in the gameplay and the disappointment of Roman resounded in the fans voices, too, for the now frequent dull victories. A time when managers would be given ample amount of time to build a team, Jose Mourinho was fired despite winning for Chelsea 5 trophies in his first 3 seasons,including a league title with a record number of points.His position was taken by Avram Grant, who reportedly had a fair share in giving Jose Mourinho the boot.
In May 2008, Chelsea reached its first ever Champions League final under Grant’s management. If not for a slip by the club captain, Roman would have finally had his hands on the giant cup, in his own country. Finalist at both the League Cup and Champions league in addition to missing the league title by just 3 points did not stop Roman from axing Avram Grant.
He was replaced by the World Cup winning Brazilian coach, Felipe Scolari. A highly respected coach was shown the exit door within 8 months at the club.His pink slip read nearly the same words as of his predecessors.The trend had started. Every next manager at Chelsea would inherit the growing impatience of Roman in his quest for the Champions League.The new arrival would know exactly what he was in for. High expectations had transpired through every brick of the club.
Guus Hiddink was appointed as a temporary manager when Roman’s advisor Piet de Visser had introduced the two parties.After another FA cup victory, at the end of season, Chelsea missed out on closing down a manager who had won the liking of the players and the fans, and would provide hope for flair and success.Unfortunately,Guus Hiddink would make way for Carlo Ancelloti.
By now, the press had launched an all out attack on the club for its haphazard policy of firing managers and the inefficiency of the system that Roman had adopted.Two times Champions League winning manager with AC Milan, Carlo Ancelotti was backed to bring the ‘big-ears’ trophy to the bridge if not anything else. Chelsea won an historic double of league title and the FA cup, only the third club to do so in premier league era, while amassing the highest number of goals scored in a single season in premier league era. However, he failed at doing exactly what was expected the most of him.Chelsea were knocked out in the Round of 16 of Champions league, for the first time in Roman’s Era. A year later, Carlo Ancelotti would not have any trophy to outweigh the quarter final defeat in Champions League at the hands of arch-rivals Manchester United.This season included one of the most debated transfers in history,that of Fernando Torres for 50m from Liverpool. Consequently, Carlo was given the marching orders within an hour after his last match for Chelsea.
A year and two managers later, Chelsea finally managed to scrape through a Champions League cup journey and end Roman’s travail for the European winner’s crown. If there is any answer for the doubts and pessimism that is created by media, it’s success. Apart from Manchester United no other club in england has won even half the number of trophies as Chelsea has during the Roman Era.
Chelsea FC- A Brand
The quintessential need for success set by Roman had a rationale which was two fold.Firstly, for any company to hire the best talent pool, it has to offer the best provisions and opportunities of the highest grade. On similar lines, Chelsea had to compete regularly at the highest level to lure the best players and keep hold of the ones already at the club. Secondly, unlike the other giants of European football, Chelsea was not a global brand in the initial years of Roman era. This combined with the fact that Stamford Bridge was not even in the 30 biggest stadiums, made it impossible to compete with the revenues of Chelsea’s competitors. Common sense should suggest that no owner would want to see the account books forever in red.The second part was marketing.
When Roman bought the club, the rules and economy of the Football market, were an unchartered territory for him. As any business man would(should) do, he hired the best professionals and had few of the most experienced men from the sport as his advisors. He understood the game through the words of Piet de Visser- a manager and a scout credited with discovering the likes of ronaldo when at PSV- and ex-Chelsea Bobby Campbell.Roman acquainted himself to the club and the harsh realities of transfer market through super agent Pini Zahavi, and gradually assimilated his key personnel like Eugene Tenenbaum, Bruce Buck, German Tkachenko and some others. His financial muscle and the management team prudently put together, placed Chelsea in the hands of the most experienced and talented professionals from US and Europe.
At the outset itself Roman was aware of the brand building required to turn Chelsea into a big-name club.Soon, he hired Peter Kenyon to expand Chelsea’s commercial horizons. Peter Kenyon served as the chief executive of Manchester United, where he alongside finance man David Gill, transformed United’s global reach with a stable financial structure. Peter was also accustomed to high profile transfers which were the mark of things to come at Chelsea.
Chelsea was amongst the first clubs to touch new arenas for marketing football, such as Asia, Africa and USA. As a reward for the rightly planned and executed strategies, Chelsea now had a dedicated fan following from different corners of the world like Malaysia, Russia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and USA. Within ten years, the management at Chelsea has reportedly taken the club from a following of a few millions to upwards of 90m. In 2004, Chelsea had their first pre-season tour to USA after many years,and the first of many to follow. Only a few thousands attended those matches.10 years hence, the friendly match between Chelsea and Manchester City at the NY Yankee stadium was a near sell-out. The club’s revenue has increased from 134m Euro to 322m Euro. The commercial revenue has seen close to 90% jump from 47m Euro to 89m Euros. A deal with Umbro was broken 5 years before the end of the contract, only to strike a deal worth a whopping 100m with adidas in 2006. The club took a flight from 6m per year deal with Fly Emirates to around 16m per year with Samsung in 2013.Chelsea has overtaken Arsenal in terms of revenue generated despite Arsenal having around 15000 seats more than Chelsea,to sell per matchday. Alliances are ventured in different verticals of Business, such as deals with Sauber, Gasprom, Delta, Audi and Singha. In just 10 years, Chelsea FC is no longer just a football club but a worldwide brand.
Another vision of Roman was to eventually carve Chelsea into a self sustaining model. A model in which steady success would be achieved by players produced by the club itself, thus maintaining the identity of the club.Roman wanted Chelsea to follow the footprints of Barcelona and create his own version of La Masia. Chelsea’s academy had already provided the captain for the Roman Era- John Terry. But as soon as Roman took over, the academy, which had produced the likes of Carlton Cole, Robert Huth, John Terry, Graeme Le Saux and many first team players before, found itself miles below the quality being rooted in the first team. The gap was duly noted by Jose Mourinho, and acting on his advise Roman decided to invest heavily into the academy.Millions were spent to create world class training facilities at the academy to entice the wonder-kids from around the world into joining Chelsea. Millions were spent on coaches to manage the academy.The Academy was expected to start rolling out at least one player per year for the first team in ten years. By 2013, biggest leagues in european football are populated by a plethora of current and ex-Chelsea academy players.
Roman had been installing mechanisms which shall pay dividends in the future, all along. Over the years, people claimed that Roman treated the club as a business and not as a football club. Well, sometimes I am thankful for that, because, a true business man would never run away from the entity in times of troubles and secondly he would do everything in his reach to achieve success. Obviously, the world of football gradually introduced restrictions like FFP rules, so that owners like Roman do not cross practical limits. Roman promptly supported the restrictions, with prevention of further such Roman-like stories reportedly as his ulterior motive.
As opposed to what media has always suggested, Roman has tried his best to balance the business and emotional sides of this football club. He turned all the debt that the club owed him, into equity. Which means if tomorrow someone buys all of Roman’s shares, he would have bought a totally debt free Chelsea FC. Roman has spent nearly 2 billion in a span of 10 years on this club, which shall be 10% of his entire wealth at the peak. For some seasons even the ticket prices were frozen despite the economic crises. He has set the tone for billionaires from around the world to invest in England, and for more and more clubs to dream of success and trophies.Because of its competitive nature now, EPL is the most watched league in the world. For the same reason it has been able to earn for itself a £3bn contract for television rights.Even without Roman,European Football was always drifting towards success-through-debt, following the likes of Real Madrid and Inter Milan.But,by ‘spoiling’ the club and the football world in his own different style, Roman has in someways, protected football by preparing it for the eventualities and side-effects of the modern world economics.
As Arnesen said recently
"He enjoys very much to go to the FA Youth Cup - he'd go the quarter-finals, the semi-finals and the finals. He was always there and would always congratulate us and the staff.He was very, very aware about those things and never forgot it. That is something people maybe don't know, but for me that showed he has a big heart for the club."
I do not know what an owner can possibly do more than all the things mentioned to demand respect from the footballing world. Yet, all that matters to Roman is Chelsea, as he’s been silently driving the club to glory, slowly but surely.
P.S. I started following Chelsea by chance, but over the years, I found in Chelsea a club which I could somehow relate to. I can dream about my favorite players to join the club. I love the dynamic nature of the club where success is treated as a priority and the owner is not hypocritical in any way.Basically,now I love everything about Chelsea FC.