Buying success

by Chris Bertram on August 30, 2003

Anyone who follows football (or “soccer” to some of you people) knows that English club Chelsea have recently been bought by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. On top of the price of the club and wiping out its enormous debts, Abramovich’s spending on players has now exceeded £100 million and a club near bankruptcy when the last season ended has become a serious contender for the championship. Naturally, the response of sporting journalists has not been to ask Michael Walzer-like questions about power in one sphere being translated to another, about the corruption of sporting contests (it was bad enough even beforehand) or about where and how this mysterious Russian got his cash (political leverage with the Yeltsin clan). Rather, they’ve fawned uncritically over this rather repulsive character. (I might add that commentary on the subject at Libertarian Samizdata hasn’t exactly focused on Lockean principles of justice in acquisition or anything similar.)

Now, at least there’s one journalist who has written something decent on the subject: Peter Chapman in the Financial Times:

bq. Abramovich, of course, has chosen Chelsea for no reasons but his own. We can only guess what they are: to get a spare quarter of a billion or so out of Russia that he’d rather have abroad than at home; to establish himself in one of the old centres of western capitalism and win more legitimacy than he can hope for on the system’s wilder Russian frontier; to get himself a pad in west London, his kids a British education….

bq. Who knows? But obviously he shares none of the tribal loyalities for the club felt by those cheering for him, and views it, and them, only as an investment, whether for the purposes of his business, social affairs or ego. Give him a round of welcoming applause, therefore, it’d be only polite to do so. But ease up on the adoration.

bq. What’s going on at Stamford Bridge bears comparison with what social anthropologists identify as a millenarian movement. Such a thing tends to take hold among primitive peoples, though more in the western Pacific than west London, in the strange form of the cargo cult. They imagine that valuable goods – fridges, TVs, silver cups, free subscriptions to Sky – will one day fall down to them from the firmament. They appoint unlikely people as their leaders, like Prince Philip, and worship them.

bq. You’d have thought that Chelsea fans with the capacity to think beyond the next round of drinks would feel there was something not right about all this money that lately has showered down on the club. Can they ever derive very much satisfaction from it? Winning gives fleeting enough pleasure as it is, without the knowledge that you bought the trophy.

bq. There’s also the minor matter of where it came from. Russia’s post-communist carve up of social assets left people like Abramovich very rich but highly unpopular. Some have tried to win favour by philanthropic good works, though large numbers of Russian pensioners scrabbling for their next meal might not see developments at Stamford Bridge in that light. But at least Chelsea have been able to rustle up the £17m needed this week to buy Hernan Crespo, another player they don’t really need.

Well said that man! In the interests of full disclosure I should state, for the record, that my bitterness towards Chelsea and their displacement of Manchester United from the position of club-I-most-dislike is unconnected to the fact that, should they lose today, my own club will have had its worst start to a season since 1911.



Brian Weatherson 08.30.03 at 8:23 am

I didn’t understand the last sentence at all. Liverpool do badly so you stop disliking Man U. Is it because you’re already giving up hope of competing with them this year? Now all the energies can be focussed on teams backed by Mob Money?

The Everton game is the first Liverpool game this year being televised in the U.S. (I think, unless I missed one somewhere) so I’ll be able to see how badly they are performing ‘first-hand’.


Chris 08.30.03 at 8:34 am

I didn’t stop disliking ManU, Brian. I meant (and thought I’d said) that there was now one team I disliked more than ManU, namely, Chelsea.


chris 08.30.03 at 8:41 am

Sorry, I see the convolutedness now! As you may know, part of Liverpool’s bad start involved a home defeat to Chelsea. It might be (wrongly) thought that my animosity towards Chelsea was merely a case of sour grapes. It isn’t.

Have I given up already? Not quite, though one dodgy penalty in 270+ minutes of play doesn’t exactly fill me with hope.


Robert Schwartz 08.30.03 at 5:30 pm

You soccer fans are about a generation behind professional sports in the US. Baseball has progressed the farthest down this primrose path. If you think Roman Abramovich is odious, you just don’t know about George Steinbrenner.


enthymeme 08.30.03 at 6:20 pm


Liverpool plays boring football, and you know it. They deserved to lose out on a Champions’ League place last season and indeed – it would have been a travesty of footballing justice had they beaten Chelsea to a CL spot in the final deciding match of the season. Chelsea had, for the length of the entire season, been the more entertaining, the more inventive, the more positive, and the better managed of the two sides. Most neutrals will agree too, that the CL would have been all the poorer for it if Liverpool had qualified at the expense of Chelsea.

Now that we’ve come into a bit of a windfall, we get envious moans from all over about how Chelsea fans are ‘fawning’ over Abramovich ‘uncritically’. Bah. Sour grapes. If you had a cash injection that size, you’d be fawning too. That is not to say though, that we aren’t aware that Abramovich may one day decide to up and leave, or do the club in in some other unfathomable way. Being wary doesn’t preclude enjoying what’s essentially a done deal for all it’s worth.

I for one fail to see how abstract reasons for disliking Chelsea – such as Abramovich’s character (about which we know little, incidentally), or his allegedly ill-gotten riches – can inspire such ‘hatred on a low boil’, as it were.

Why detract from providing good footballing reasons for said bitterness? You know, the usual: arrogant players/manager, ‘negative’ football, thuggish players, supporters are prigs, etc.

Mark Radcliffe just about sums it up from the terraces:

“. . . however first things first a word about money. Once again the indulgent meanderings of one or two chairman and commentators have emerged moaning about how the chelsea revolution is ruining the game. Apparently according to among others the Arsenal vice chairman Chelsea are putting too much money into the game ?!? I’m not going to waste too much time on this suffice to say that off the top of my head so far Portsmouth, West Ham, B’ham, Charlton, Southampton, Blackburn, and annoyingly Man Utd have benefited from Romans money and of course that money filters down as those clubs with cash spend (blackburn buy Ferguson, Saints buy Phillips etc) and those with players on loan do better then they would have. It seems to me that the only negative impact so far is the vague possibility that this years Premeirship will not be a two horse race and there is an extra £100 million in the industry swilling about at a difficult time. And thats bad why? Tony Parks the Blackburn assistant manager and student of political economy says with a stunning insight ‘what will happen if Roman gets bored and leaves?’

Well he will arguably leave a debt free club and we’ll carry on but if you want extremes I’ll offer one.

If he goes in three or four years time and the ‘stars’ go as well after winning the title, maybe the Champions League maybe coming close, maybe picking up the FA cup maybe winning the league again…. and then descending back into the pack of mediocrity that is the world of Spurs, Villa, Everton etc, clubs who’s lack of ambition have done a disservice to their fans and to the game itself then I for one won’t give a f***.

We’ve supported a crumbling bankrupt side with Tommy Langley in it before and as long as we never have to pay to watch Dean Windass we’ll carry on supporting them then. You take the ups with the downs, right now its an up, shut the f*** up and let us get on with enjoying it. Right now we are going to spend some time trying to compete with Manure and the Arse and play some bloody brilliant football.

And we might, just might, just win the league?!”


Chris 08.30.03 at 7:23 pm

“If you had a cash injection that size, you’d be fawning too.”

I’d hope not.

“his allegedly ill-gotten riches”



enthymeme 08.30.03 at 8:06 pm

Right, so you wouldn’t be lauding a cash injection that size. OK. Nor would you particularly enjoy the excitement of having new players bought from that windfall – and people who do deserve to be disliked. OK.

So let’s grant that Abramovich’s riches are “ill-gotten”.

And because Chelsea Village Plc receives financing from a man whom you consider some kind of reprobate, Chelsea the footballing side deserves to be intensely disliked.

Gee, OK.

Anyway, congrats on the 3-0 win :-)


reuben 08.31.03 at 9:05 pm

For the last several years, commentators in the US have moaned about how big money guys like Steinbrenner are ruining baseball by “buying titles”. And now Abramovich is supposedly guilty of doing the same for “Chelski”.

This meme is a bit exaggerated, and doesn’t take into account other big spenders who haven’t managed to win. LA Dodgers, anyone? The truth is, big spenders often do win, but only if they run their organisations intelligently. And often, the little guys can do just as well. Look at last year’s World Series (so named because it was originally sponsored by the New York World newspaper, I believe): neither San Francisco nor Anaheim were atop the spending charts. San Francicso was only 16th out of 30 teams, I think.

I’m not particularly sure how well the American experience will translate to the UK, but it should be noted that even with super spenders like Steinbrenner, baseball is now more balanced than it ever has been before. Don’t believe me? Just look at the list of World Series winners: there’s a lot more variegation now than there ever was back in the good old days.

And in the ’80s, didn’t one team and pretty much one team alone dominate UK football? What was its name again?

The point about building up a team over time is well taken, though. But what would you do to stop teams from buying in lots of high-priced talent? An American basketball-style salary cap? Doesn’t look like that’s done a lot of good for NBA parity.



Perry de Havilland 09.01.03 at 12:11 pm

No doubt if he had got his money via some nationalised industry that steals cash from taxpayers and productive sectors of the economy, folks on the left like Chris would have had no problem with ‘where his money comes from’.


Chris 09.01.03 at 12:30 pm

If he amassed that much private wealth “via” a nationalised industry (hang on, isn’t that kindof sortof what he did?) I’d certainly have a problem with it – as well you know Perry!


Dave F 09.02.03 at 11:16 am

Come off it , guv, football and dodgy money have gone together forever, like, I dunno, Fergie and aerial teacups (or flying football boots). Your elegant phraseology fails to conceal a nasty case of sour grapes. Perhaps we should be worried about Fulham’s fortune or Madchester’s moolah too?

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