The football media has been somewhat obsessed with trying to sell Chelsea Football Club out from underneath Roman Abramovich, and have been running stories to that effect for much of the past couple years, but especially since Abramovich’s work visa was denied (due to the geopolitical climate) and he put the new stadium project on hold (due to the “unfavorable investment climate”) in May of last year (2018).
Repeated denials have done little to dissuade this notion, though as obviously neither Abramovich nor the Emperor’s Hand, Marina Granovskaia are in the business of giving interviews, those denials have come largely from second-hand sources, or from Chelsea Chairman Bruce Buck.
Whenever Buck (or really, anyone in a position of power and knowledge these days) says something, you have a choice to make. You either believe him and take everything he says at face value. Or you believe that he’s just an empty suit doing PR and/or Roman’s dirty work, and take everything he says at the opposite value. So when he says that Abramovich isn’t selling, that he’s just as committed to the club as before, if not more, and so on and so forth, you either believe that to be that actual truth, or you believe that he’s just saying what he needs to say. But of course he will say x, y, and z. That’s what he wants you think! Etc.
So here’s Buck’s latest, and perhaps greatest attempt and denying these rumors. To illustrate the point made in the preceding paragraph, the Guardian’s David Conn wrote two stories based on them, one largely in favor of Buck’s message, and one largely against it. Way to cover all the bases!
“So far as I know, absolutely not; to the contrary. I have never heard a word from Mr Abramovich: ‘Let’s get this ready for a sale,’ or something. Because of the political situation, there are people who think they might want to buy Chelsea football club at a bargain. We do get inquiries and we really have nothing to say to these people.”
-Bruce Buck; source: Guardian
Of course, every one of these “inquiries” has resulted in a new round of sales rumors, whether they involved potential British, American, or most recently, Asian bidders.
The trouble with transfer rumors is that the story doesn’t even have to be true in order to gain traction and enter the overall narrative. Inquiries must mean the club is up for sale, right? Chelsea sources keep claiming that’s wrong. Is there smoke without fire? Chelsea might say yes.
A Telegraph story last week quoted a Chelsea “associate” in denying the existence of any fire in fact.
“Any Chelsea [sale] is off the the table as far as Roman is concerned. He is genuinely very pleased with how things are. Chelsea’s academy is being promoted and this is what he has wanted for some time and it’s finally working.”
-Chelsea associate; source: Telegraph
Abramovich’s physical absence isn’t helping the public perception unfortunately, but while he’d be more than capable of visiting the UK thanks to his Israeli citizenship, he’s apparently decided to stay away on principle.
But Buck and other Chelsea-sourced reports assure that if Abramovich has any beef with UK authorities, he’s not letting that affect his interest in Chelsea, nor his contributions to certain other interests. Abramovich made a multi-million pound donation to the Imperial War Museum last year, to help fund the museum’s new Holocaust Galleries. Bruce Buck, Petr Čech, and César Azpilicueta made an appearance at a fundraising and awareness event in support of the Galleries recently — part the club’s continuing efforts to combat racism and discrimination through the Say No To Antisemitism campaign.
Abramovich is obviously very committed to that campaign, and is using Chelsea’s status, influence, and fame to help those efforts. But he also remains very much involved in the football side of things, as Buck once again confirmed while speaking with journalists at the event.
“In terms of being involved, in looking at new players, talking about whether to extend players’ contracts, do we buy this player, do we sell this player, [Abramovich] was always intimately involved in that from day one and is just as intimately involved now. He talks to Marina [Granovskaia] – the board member who supervises the football operation – several times a day, every day. Marina has been doing that for seven or eight years; that hasn’t let up or changed at all.”
Other than his frequent appearances in the owner’s box at Stamford Bridge (which he reportedly no longer maintains), the most visible “commitments” Abramovich had been making were the big-money transfer signings. Thanks to the transfer ban, a homegrown youth revolution has sprung up at the Bridge. If Abramovich did want to get out, now would be a decent opportunity, the thinking goes. But this has always been the plan for Roman, to develop our own players — why else would we build a world class academy at Cobham? Not to mention, Chelsea have been spending big since May 2018 just the same, breaking the world transfer record for a goalkeeper and spending £50m+ each on Jorginho, Christian Pulisic, and Mateo Kovačić.
And that’s probably not the end of the spending, as Buck hints, even with the youth revolution in full swing. (Combining those two methods of player acquisition and development is the ideal model, after all.)
“I understand what you are saying and it is hard to disprove it, except to say: ‘Let’s see what happens in the next transfer window.’ The point I am making – it’s a glib one – if we go out in the next window and spend a zillion, it’s pretty hard to argue that things are on hold.”
“The transfer ban has led to more opportunities for the young players. I can’t deny that if there wasn’t a transfer ban we might have splurged out on one or two or three players. So, yes, it was some of that; it was Frank Lampard, the players that were ready, a whole collection of things that resulted in where we are now. It makes Mr Abramovich very happy, because he is very interested in the academy. I would guess he’s one of the very few owners that have been to lots of academy matches.”
-Bruce Buck; source: Guardian
Alas, until he starts attending them again, there will be plenty of room left for speculation.
And the same goes for the stadium issue, for which the planning permission expires in four months, at the end of March. It’s been all quiet on that front for some time, and at this point, it would be surprising if that permit weren’t allowed to lapse. At which point, we’d have to start the process all over again at some point in the future. And make no mistake, whether with Abramovich or without, the stadium will have to be addressed some point soon. It’s been a billion-pound issue brought up by multiple of those supposed interested parties who continue driving the sales rumors — a boondoggle that makes Chelsea’s rumored valuation of £2.5-3b much less attractive.
And that’s good. Abramovich has been the best owner any football club ever wish for. Long may that continue, through and well beyond whatever solution we eventually arrive at for the stadium.