On this day ten years ago, football changed forever.
The negotiations were completed, the deal done, the contracts signed and the briefcases closed. An unknown Russian had just plunged into the unknown, as Chelsea’s football directors finally sold the club to Roman Abramovich.
The man who came from nowhere and who instantly became an overnight sensation immediately changed the face of football. Abramovich, who had first toyed with the idea of purchasing Manchester United, and who had mistaken Fulham’s Craven Cottage for Stamford Bridge (from the comfort of his helicopter no less) came in with new ideas and an ambition never before seen.
Immediately, the highest transfer fees started being offered for the greatest footballers, in addition to the highest salaries anyone could command. By the time the Premier League season for the 2003-2004 season got underway, Chelsea’s team was unrecognisable from the one that had finished the season prior due to the number of recognisable footballers that were now donning the blue.
It instantly turned Chelsea from the team that required a final day win against Liverpool to secure the fourth and final Champions League spot, to title contenders and Champions League hopefuls.
Abramovich’s ambition, summarily put was to become among the best clubs in the world by 2014. Within three years of his taking over, his Chelsea side had won two Premier League titles, breaking points records and least goals conceded records along the way. By 2010, they had won the Premier League by scoring an outstanding 103 goals. By 2012, they were Champions of Europe.
This success was fueled by the injection of money, and a ruthless streak of hiring and firing managers based on ambitions set so high, they were near impossible. Of course, this changed the team from West London. What it did in effect was also change football as a whole.
For starters, the established order in England was instantly upset. Manchester United and Arsenal had enjoyed the sort of hegemony that had seen them win every League crown between them from 1996 to 2004. Abramovich’s introduction crashed that party, as Chelsea rose to a level able to compete with them.
Financially, it meant that the hard work Manchester United had done for many years to become the richest club in the world now paled into insignificance. Chelsea were on their way there via a huge shortcut. The same applied to Arsenal, who in all fairness really never saw this coming.
Indeed, without the impossible power of foresight, the team from North London had already made the decision to move stadiums in a bid to raise match day revenue. Without Chelsea’s fortunes, it is easy to see why. They would still have been a dominant force and the two horse race with United would have meant better returns year in year out than the ones they have now.
Chelsea however ripped that apart, as with the blink of an eye, they could dominate English football. Arsenal’s potentially sound investment gamble now started to look like an irrelevancy, as the debt garnered from the stadium move meant competing on a financial base was now out of the question. It is not their fault.
In the same light, it is not difficult to imagine Abramovich’s influence in the likes of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister who bought Manchester City and started to turn it into a force. He on the other hand sold it to Sheikh Al Mansour, who has definitely turned it into a force.
Following suit are the rich owners of PSG, Monaco, Malaga (somewhat), QPR (fail) and even, the hugely unpopular decision by the Glazer family to purchase Manchester United. In the same stead, it is probably the spending of Abramovich that may have also influenced Moise Katumbi Chapwe, owner of Congolese club TP Mazembe.
All this has pointed to how football in the last decade has been run. Money has ruled, with whoever can pay most having the best in their squad. Transfer fees have risen. Salaries have rocketed. Teams have become richer and richer.
By doing so, football is now descending into an era of super rich clubs, where it is they that will dominate as the rest try impossibly to catch up. Indeed, with the introduction of Financial Fair Play, the possibility of more Abramoviches coming in at clubs will be removed. It means that the rich will be locked somewhere at the top, with nobody seemingly able to catch them.
It seems sad, as now youth development is also set to take a small blow. In clubs where it is possible, the only possibility will be to produce youngsters who can then be sold off for the best price to a super rich club. Consider the likes of Ajax Amsterdam, whom now cannot compete with the big clubs in Europe, yet have produced players for most of them.
And with development going out the window, so too has patience in so far as managers are concerned. Short term-ism has taken over, and managers have no time to set about their ideals and philosophies. No wonder Marcelo Bielsa could not last at Athletic Bilbao, and why Arsene Wenger continues to divide opinion in North London.
All this seems to have a sense of Abramovich’s influence behind it. Indeed, football has been influenced over time by charismatic managers or peerless players. For the past decade, it has been influenced by a cash-rich owner.
If that is set to continue in years to come, then it will be that first day of July in 2003 that made all the difference. It may not have been as significant as the one in 1917, but on that day in 2003, a Russian began a revolution. Football has not been the same ever since.