Football ownership has been a controversial topic as of late, with many clubs increasing their spending
Nobody knew who he was. Nobody at Chelsea, anyway. He was introduced as a mystery buyer, “very rich… foreign… serious,” and at first, that was as much as anyone at Stamford Bridge was told.
Trevor Birch, the club’s chief executive at the time, was given a name on the condition of total secrecy: “Abramovich. Roman Abramovich.”
Skepticism started with Birch, whose team was suffering from abysmal owners. When it was time to make a deal, Abrahamovic didn’t look the part of a billionaire. He was aloof and passive only speaking through an interpreter. But Abrahamovic was still very eager to get his hands on Chelsea, and the English giant was sold in 15 minutes.
The story of how Abrahmovic not only saved Chelsea in 2003 but also led an unmatched ownership reign, with the club winning everything under the sun, was unprecedented.
It was unprecedented not because he was the first foreign owner but because the late Egyptian tycoon Mohamed Al Fayed and Serbian-American businessman Milan Mandatic both owned Fulham and Portsmouth in the Premier League era. Even going further back, Lebanese businessman Sam Hammam had a stint owning Wimbledon.
What makes Abrahamovic different, however, was the perception of close ties with politics that his investment would bring. While he saved Chelsea from a 75 million loan default, he was also an oligarch with close ties to a past and future enemy.
Abrahamovic was the first benefactor in world football. His era saw Chelsea become a household name with the purchase of Cole, Makelele and Crespo.
As former Newcastle United owner Sir John Hall told The Athletic in 2020, Abramovich’s arrival transformed football’s financial landscape.
“His money changed the game,” Hall said. “It changed the way football was being run. He could do anything.”
There was dread in the early 20th century that the association of clubs with their owners was changing. Previously, there was a sense of pride being driven by local business giants owning local clubs; steel manufacturers at Blackburn, property managers at Newcastle, and retail and football pool owners at Liverpool.
But in the early 2000s, the oligarch who got his money by capitalising on loans for shares auctions was the one saved the club. Opposition existed then, but it was mostly drowned out by the success of the group.
In fact, the fiercest stand against Abrahamovic would be made after the start of not the Syrian war or the Chechen war, but the Ukraine war, in which all oligarchs with assets in Britain would have their money frozen.
Chelsea would be sold shortly after. But Abrahamovic’s success had already inspired a different group of people.
In the next decade, a new round of mystery bidders ranging from Americans to Bhutanese would start owning clubs. Lerner at Aston Villa, Moshiri at Everton, Hicks at Liverpool and Glazers at United.
Gulf owners in sports
The first, most successful, and most dramatised stint of a Gulf nation at a European club came as Manchester City was taken over by Sheikh Mansour.
Just a year prior, the Cityzens were trying to replicate Chelsea’s success and courting the Thai government. With the Thai administration’s backing, they improved their football, but allegations of corruptions loomed and new investors were needed.
Enter Sheikh Mansour.
He would transform Manchester City as a football powerhouse in England with multiple trebles and record-breaking seasons fueled by enormous spending.
Qatar would follow suit with its investment in PSG which proves to be slightly less successful but commercially viable. And, recently, Saudi Arabia’s PIF would be a majority owner of Newcastle, whose project shows promise.
It would be disingenuous to lump these three together not only because they were nations that were in a tense foreign policy arrangement recently but also because they have different aims and structures in governing football.
For instance, unlike Qatar’s ownership of Paris Saint-Germain or Saudi Arabia’s holdings in Newcastle, City is not owned by the state.
But questions like the recent discussion on whether clubs should be owned by outsiders to such a degree, where unparalleled investments almost guarantee success, have always been raised.
Nevertheless, with the frequency of such questions today, there is a valid criticism pointing to the often insincere Islamophobic undertones.
Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the beautiful sport has been compared to classic sports washing, to disguise political violence at home and abroad. Qatar’s investment in the sport has been speculated to be a means to raise its diplomatic profile. And with the UAE, City were put somewhere in the middle.
Perhaps, it is because of this fear that there have been stronger rules on who can own a Premier League club. And, an even stronger rule on financial fair play and reigning in over-investment.
City was banned from European competitions for two years by UEFA for alleged breaches of its FFP regulations in February 2020. The sanction was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in July of the same year. But other investigations remain.
PSG has had two similar investigations about the financial fair play that resulted in the devaluation of their sponsors Qatar Tourism and Qatar Airways, forcing the club to cut ties with Qatar Tourism.
But for all allegations against financial fair play rules, these clubs have proven time and time again that they are invested in the sport and their fans.
April 2021 saw 12 of the biggest, wealthiest and most prestigious football clubs across Europe launch their plans for a European Super League.
This would have essentially killed all national-based leagues and siphoned all revenues from every other club.
Within 48 hours, and amid backlash from fans, pundits and the UK government, the six Premier League clubs involved all announced their formal decisions to withdraw from the breakaway European League.
PSG and Nasser Al Kheliafi were instrumental in blocking the Super League that would have made the Gulf between rich and poor clubs wider. For his involvement in blocking the deal, he was appointed in UEFA, the governing body of European football.
Meanwhile, Manchester City continues to invest in its stadiums and fans as well as Manchester in rates that are unprecedented.
Yet, still, leading Premier League clubs are not satisfied.
They have asked the government to block nation-states from owning English football teams, with the request potentially forming part of a new regulator’s brief.
After Abrahamovic and the slew of investors that followed, the Premiere League is set to start a screening system.
Following an English football fan–led review, the UK government recently proposed numerous changes for the game’s clubs, key among them being the appointment of an independent regulator with oversight for many areas of fan concern.
The proposal would include the following.
- Appropriate Resources: All clubs must have adequate financial and nonfinancial resources and controls in place to meet committed spending and foreseeable risks.
- Fit and Proper Custodians: Individuals at any club deemed to exercise significant decision-making influence, including owners, key shareholders, and directors, must be fit and proper custodians. The origins of such individuals’ wealth will be subject to greater scrutiny.
- Fan Interests: All clubs must have appropriate provisions for considering the interests of fans on key decisions and issues of club heritage on an ongoing basis.
- Approved Competitions: The club must agree to compete only in leagues and competitions that are approved by the regulator based on predetermined criteria to prevent any breakaway, so-called “super leagues.”
The Guardian reported that leading top-flight clubs used the consultation period to individually lobby the government on state ownership, a process separate from any Premier League submissions.
Especially following newly acquired Newcastle and their success, there is a split in the Premiere League over whether Gulf nations should own clubs.
According to the Premier League, it received “legally binding guarantees” that the state of Saudi Arabia would not have control over Newcastle United in the event of any deal.
All of which begs the question: is fear of Gulf nations simply paranoia, or is it one that manifests itself down the line like Abrahamovic?