When enough time has passed for a full appraisal of Roman Abramovich’s 19-year reign as Chelsea owner, Kai Havertz might just be the player that defines it more than any other. It is apt that it was his goal, in a 1-0 win against Newcastle United in the Premier League, that signalled the start of an uncertain new era at Stamford Bridge.
The Germany international scored the winning goals that clinched 2021 Champions League glory and a first FIFA Club World Cup this year for Chelsea. He also arrived as a £72 million club-record signing back in 2020, so if any player sums up the trophies and transfer-market largesse under Abramovich, it is Havertz.
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But those days are gone, and nobody yet knows how life after Abramovich will look for Chelsea. The Russian oligarch was this week sanctioned by the UK government — meaning he is banned from the country, and his assets, including Chelsea FC, have been frozen — because of his connections to Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, following his home nation’s military invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
When the Premier League announced on Saturday that Abramovich had been disqualified as a director of Chelsea, it was a mere footnote at the end of a remarkable 48 hours that had plunged the club into a state of financial paralysis. Abramovich had already set in motion attempts to sell the club, enlisting New York bank Raine Group to find a buyer, but that sale is now on hold, with Chelsea’s technical advisor Petr Cech admitting before the Newcastle game that nobody is even certain that the club, which has had its credit cards frozen by the banks, will be able to finish the season.
“We are focused on the things we can control,” former Blues goalkeeper Cech told Sky Sports. “But we have to admit we go day by day as it’s not in our hands. The conversations are about if we can finish the season and we’re part of the Premier League.”
Confusion reigns at Stamford Bridge and that was evident prior to the game. The atmosphere outside the stadium was unusually muted, with the exception of noisy Newcastle fans who taunted their rivals with chants about money running out, their own new-found wealth under Saudi Arabian owners and songs about Abramovich being a “war offender.”
This fixture was billed by one prominent UK sportswriter as a “game that turns the stomach” due to it being contested by one club that has been bankrolled by a man sanctioned because of his links to Putin, and another that is now owned by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, whose chairman is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Newcastle fans waved Saudi flags during this game, but when manager Eddie Howe was asked how he could reconcile coaching a club with connections to a regime that, on Saturday, executed 81 people, he stuck firmly to on-pitch matters.
“I’m just going to answer questions on the game and on football,” Howe said. “I’m still bitterly disappointed about the defeat.”
When asked about the questions facing Newcastle’s owners, Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said: “Wow, that’s a big one. Unfortunately the situation is like this for the owners of Newcastle. What can I say? I don’t want to point the fingers at Newcastle because blaming others doesn’t change our situation.”
This is the reality of the Premier League in 2022. It is football’s most glamorous, wealthiest and high-profile league and it attracts all kinds of owners, from sovereign states with questionable human rights records to oligarchs regarded as being inextricably connected to those starting a war in Europe. And Chelsea, having become one of the Premier League’s most successful teams thanks to Abramovich’s money, are now discovering the flip-side of relying so heavily on the wealth of one owner who has now had his assets frozen by the UK government.
The last time Chelsea played at Stamford Bridge was against Lille on Feb. 22, two days before Russia invaded Ukraine. Against Lille, the club shop was open, fans could buy a match programme and Abramovich was the all-powerful owner of the champions of the world and Europe. Less than three weeks later, none of that applies and the change has been so dramatic that fans were urged by Tuchel not to sing Abramovich’s name as they had done defiantly at Norwich on Thursday.
Abramovich’s name wasn’t sung during this game, but a banner bearing the Russian’s face and the words “The Roman Empire” continued to hang from the Matthew Harding Stand. It is unlikely to be there the next time Chelsea play at Stamford Bridge, against Brentford next month.
Who knows what situation Chelsea will be in by then? Several interested parties are attempting to buy the club, which remains an appealing investment opportunity because of its location in one of London’s most upmarket areas and its global brand, but if the financial problems caused by the Abramovich sanctions prevent the club from paying player wages and other outgoings, then the risk of insolvency would become a real one.
In Tuchel at least, Chelsea have a manager with honesty and perspective to lead the team and speak on behalf of the club and the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain coach is doing that with distinction right now. When he emerged from the tunnel for his postmatch interviews, over 100 Chelsea fans who had stayed in the ground gave Tuchel a standing ovation.
But Tuchel can only control the football and, so far, he has guided the team to two wins in two games since Abramovich was sanctioned on Thursday. He saw Havertz score the winning goal in the 89th minute, after the player had been fortunate to escape a first-half red card for appearing to hit Dan Burn with an elbow, and celebrated with as much relief as joy at consolidating third spot and a Champions League qualification place.
Next up is the Champions League round-of-16 second leg at Lille on Wednesday. Having been limited to spending just £20,000 on travel to away games as part of the government sanctions on the club, since it is one of Abramovich’s assets, Tuchel said after the game that Chelsea had been able to secure a plane for the trip to France. “But if I have to drive a seven-seater, I will do this,” he added.
Things are quite that bad yet for Chelsea, but nobody truly knows what the weeks ahead will bring.