Chelsea's 1-0 win over Portsmouth Saturday completes a league-and-cup double. This should be cause for celebration, but all is not well at Stamford Bridge. Club owner Roman Abramovich will not be able to move his plans forward until Chelsea win the Champions' League.
Abramovich bought the club from "Cuddly" Ken Bates in 2003 for a total of 140 million pounds (US $210 million at today's rate; over $250 million then). Much of the fee was assumption of club debt. Abramovich quickly spent just as much on new players. His motives were unclear.
Abramovich, a Russian oligarch, was first accused of buying himself an expensive toy. That was an easy answer, but it fell by the wayside.
I spent a lot of time in Russia from 2004-06, and speculation inside that country shifted to the notion that Abramovich was simply trying to move cash overseas. Buying Chelsea was one way to do that. Abramovich was named governor of a far-eastern region and was tight with the government in Moscow. Russia, politically, is like the Wild West though, so people thought Abramovich was trying to accumulate overseas assets in case he needed to get out of Dodge. Oligarchs who fall out of favor end up either self-exiled or in prison.
Abramovich, however, has not seen his political fortunes fade, even as Vladimir Putin left the Russian presidency. Abramovich took a beating in the recession, but his Chelsea motives are now clearer: he wants a profitable club, or at least one that can break even. And if it's the biggest in the world, so much the better.
That can't happen until Chelsea wins the Champions' League. Chelsea loses tens of millions of pounds annually, and Abramovich waits patiently as his men try and build the brand. More summers than not, there's a US tour. The Chelsea TV channel was set up to broadcast to Asia. The shirt design is tweaked regularly to entice supporters to buy the newest designs. In the mean time, Chelsea has the highest wage bill in soccer, and the team continues to buy players annually (though not as aggressively as before). Premiums are paid for players if it's thought those players unlock marketing opportunities.
The bottom line will keep bleeding red ink, however, until Chelsea wins the Champions' League. Soccer fans (and more importantly, those who buy tickets and merchandise) fall into two groups. The first group is the hardcore fan who supports his own club or clubs. (Count me here. I support two teams: Real Madrid, and whoever plays against Barcelona on any given day. I have family and cultural ties to West Brom and Dynamo Moscow.) The second group is the fickle crowd that supports winning teams. Chelsea now has three league titles and three FA Cups under Abramovich, but until Chelsea wins the Champions' League, the club will not be seen worldwide as winners. There's always next year.
Abramovich thought he was Steinbrenner buying the Yankees. So far, he's bought the Cubs.