Roman Abramovich, Citizen of the World
The English Premier League is almost what its name implies: the premier football league. (First goes to the NFL.) The world’s best soccer talent competes in England, and the talent in the EPL surpasses all rival leagues. When Russia launched its assault on the Ukraine last month, the eyes of football fans around the world turned to the reigning champions of Europe: Chelsea Football Club.
Chelsea F.C. is one of London’s great teams, and was transformed into a powerhouse after being acquired by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003. Once a provincial club with decades of moderate success, Abramovich spent heavily on top talent, filling trophy cabinets and transforming Chelsea into the world’s 25th-most-valuable sports franchise.
A slew of foreign investors noticed Abramovich’s success and soon followed in his footsteps, many of whom came from autocracies just as repressive as Russia. Manchester City is owned by Sheikh Mansour. Newcastle United is owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund. Everton is owned by an Iranian steeped in Russian business. Southampton and Wolverhampton are each owned by Chinese investors. The English Premier League remains premier, but certainly not very British.
The Russo-Ukrainian War may change that. The British government, led by a Boris Johnson desperate for political redemption, has leveled unprecedented sanctions against Roman Abramovich and Chelsea F.C. The British government froze Abramovich’s assets and initiated a complicated selloff of the club in the immediate days after fighting began in the Ukraine. Clouded by the frenzied pace of anti-Russian sanctions, government officials were able to start the selloff process without presenting significant evidence or a nuanced moral case against Abramovich to the public.
Of course, the fans of rival clubs celebrated, setting social media ablaze as they celebrated the fall of the European giant. Without much self-awareness, fans of Emirates-owned clubs accused Chelsea fans of being enemies of democracy. The combination of football hooliganism and jingoism proved too much for the barricades of reason.
Loyal to the man who led their club to new heights and unapologetic to their hypocritical detractors, Chelsea fans were skeptical of the government’s proclamations. By the time of Johnson’s statement, Abramovich’s daughter had excoriated Putin with an anti-war Instagram post in the early hours of the invasion. Abramovich himself, perhaps hoping to avoid inevitable sanctions, vowed to donate the proceeds from the sale of Chelsea to victims of the Ukrainian War. These are hardly the actions of a man or family seeking to stooge for Russian leadership.
Remaining fans at Chelsea games—new ticket sales are prohibited until completion of the club’s forcible sale—drew the ire of P.M. Johnson by chanting Abramovich’s name at several matches.
“We recognize the strength of feeling around people’s clubs,” read an official statement from Johnson. “But that does not excuse behavior which is completely inappropriate at this time.”
Chelsea’s manager Thomas Tuchel, who, despite the controversy, is more likely than Boris Johnson to retain his job, shot back in defense of the fans:
I don’t know if in these times this is the most important subject to be discussed in Parliament. If fan’s chants need to be discussed in Parliament, maybe we need to worry about the priorities of discussions there, but okay. No need to comment from me. We have far more urgent things to discuss and handle.
Of course. Setting the lineup for the upcoming European Champions League semi-final against the world’s fifth-most-valuable sports franchise, Real Madrid, is far more important than indulging No. 10.
By kick-off, Chelsea will have a Swiss, American, or some other Western owner. Christian Pulisic, the first truly great American footballer, will feature for Chelsea in this fall’s World Cup. Chelsea’s American market is sure to explode. He will be playing in Qatar, a dizzying choice to host the World Cup but an undeniable source of football capital. Never mind the slave-built stadiums or Sepp Blatter’s absence. Football goes on.
Roman Abramovich must feel puzzled. Sure, he’s an oligarch. Born a penniless orphan, he swindled and greased his way to the top. But Russia was hard, and the West was easy. Financing a winning football club in London and parading a megayacht through Bermuda was his escape from the wintery depression associated with managing Russian mobs. It’s plausible that his Colorado mountaintop was preferable to Sochi. Besides, his ill-gotten gains were welcome in the West—his gasoline-powered Berlin and his capita-bankrolled British football. If the World Cup can be in Qatar, he could walk freely at Stamford Bridge. Abramovich wasn’t a student of Aleksander Dugin, just a citizen of the world.
Now, far from the jet-set master of European football, Abramovich is pitiful. His yacht is moored in Turkey; European ports are closed to him. He’s been stripped of Western assets, including his many homes. Streaming Chelsea’s upcoming match will be nearly impossible in Russia, where he’s been thrust into negotiations on behalf of a thuggish master who seeks his humiliation. Putin considers him weak, a coward with international loyalties.
Chelsea fans, for their part, have been left disaffected. Abramovich doesn’t seem to be the Russian villain depicted by the government. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Roman Abramovich and two members of the Ukrainian diplomatic team were poisoned. This shocking development shrouded Abramovich’s future. There isn’t a clear culprit at this point, but most have inferred. The British are well-familiar with Putin’s use of poison.
For Chelsea fans with affection for the Ukraine, they’re confused. The Tory government praises Ukrainian President Zelensky, but Zelensky requested that Abramovich be excluded from sanctions. It seems to Chelsea fans that Zelensky may have a more favorable view of their club’s owner, which could be relevant to their hurried M.P.s.
Yes, Abramovich seems different to the Blues fans. A citizen of the world, now homeless. Abramovich is at once an abused puppet in Russia and excommunicated by his partners of convenience in the West—partners he naively assumed to be his compatriots.
Surveying football’s landscape, Abramovich may be a pioneer. The bet that economic liberalization would promote social liberalization failed. The tremors of decoupling set off by the U.S-China Trade War in 2018 are rumbling in the aftershocks of Covid-19 and the Donbas War. Saudi Arabia is accepting the yen for oil, a threat to the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. Iran is raining missiles, humiliating the U.S. during the white-flag parade our bureaucrats call the JCPOA. North Korea tested an ICBM that can reach any U.S. city. Drillers are headed to Venezuela, India is pursuing independent interests. China, the critical player, bides its time. The West is learning that their partners of convenience have failed to manifest liberty in their autocratic homes, and the West has become a tool for rulers to expend.
Abramovich is a member of an emergent class: the nationally homeless, the 21st century’s disgraced merchant class. Emirates and Saudi royals are sure to join Abramovich. A decoupling from Chinese Tuhao, a class Xi Jingping is preparing to dispose of, will expand the class further. Humiliating asset seizures, swift falls from grace, and moral queasiness will mark the fall of globalization. Both East and West, the nationally homeless will become objects of ridicule: Men who traded upon their nation.
But citizens, like Chelsea fans, have an obligation to pause. After decades of partnership and sleazy profiteering, should people mindlessly cast out the byproducts of globalization? Globalization was pursued as an unquestionable good. Attempts to interrogate globalization’s direct financial beneficiaries and examine their bottom lines were rejected in the name of human rights. Now that the game is up and profits are no longer guaranteed, are citizens of nations expected to repatriate the citizens of the world? Do citizens of the world deserve to be a class of refugees?
In the case of Roman Abramovich, unquestionably not. But consequences cannot be reserved for autocratic goons alone. Western enablers created the crisis, from Wall Street to Whitehall. They should face the consequences appropriate for nations governed by the rule of law. Should Boris Johnson excoriate Chelsea fans for pitying Abramovich, or should Chelsea fans excoriate Boris Johnson for presiding over Singapore on the Thames? As nations return to their hemispheres, the same questions will begin to march through other Western institutions. Uncomfortable questions now await Hollywood, higher education, finance, the political class, and yes, sport.
For now, observers can only watch and wait. Abramovich may well have been sentenced to death by his former partners in London, but his football team is set for eminence in Europe. Thomas Tuchel leads one of the world’s most talented squads. Still, the odds of success are unclear, and anything can happen. Chelsea fans, like all Westerners, can only nervously wait for what comes next. The window of elation is broken; great forces are on the move. Glory, once guaranteed, hangs on a gamble. Glory, once ensured, hangs on a series of fateful decisions: when to counter-attack, how to avoid penalty, when to shoot, and when to restrain—a game with the highest consequences.