The Home Office decided to make a point with Roman Abramovich, so he decided to make one back. The rebuilding of Stamford Bridge was an outstanding, optimistic £1billion project creating local jobs and wealth.
Scrapping it, for the time being, does not mean Abramovich is pulling out of Chelsea; but for a country now beholden to foreign investors, it most certainly does mean something.
Do it yourself. That is the message here. Yet a country that has sold its land, its monuments, its companies and its most prized sporting institutions to the highest bidder, where does that leave modern Britain?
Roman Abramovich has scrapped plans to rebuild Stamford Bridge after he was denied a visa
The expansion would have increased capacity to 60,000 and was a statement of intent
The government made Abramovich’s visa application part of that and this is a very rich, very powerful man pushing back, with Chelsea the collateral damage in the middle. It is almost amusing that the Home Office did not see this coming. How do they think a man becomes so successful and influential in Putin’s Russia? By observing Queensberry rules?
This may turn out to be nothing more than international brinkmanship: a nation state versus a man with the wealth of one, and a very formidable ally egging him on from the shadows, but there is no doubt it leaves Chelsea in confusion.
The interest in Maurizio Sarri of Napoli appears to have cooled, and Laurent Blanc is now the name being mentioned as Antonio Conte’s successor. He has won the title four times in France but lacks the instant attraction of previous appointments.
Abramovich has been a fine owner, a constant amid changes to players and managers
Meanwhile, the problems mount. There is a substantial claim to be settled with Conte, the possibility that Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois will move in the summer, and only Europa League football to offer to potential transfer targets. Yet, knowing the club, if that was all, some would simply consider it par for the course.
Chelsea have always existed in a state of turmoil — managers successful, then summarily sacked, players acquired and in favour, then as quickly alienated and out. David Luiz was bought, sold, bought again, lionised as a title-winning influencer, then just as swiftly banished. Chelsea have much more in common with the maelstrom of Real Madrid than the Premier League dynasties created at Manchester United and Arsenal.
Yet throughout there was one constant: Abramovich. It did not matter that managers came and went, that players mutinied and were forgiven, or exiled. It was inconsequential that their most successful manager of the modern era, Jose Mourinho, had been sacked on two occasions, that a manager who won a Champions League did not make it to Christmas, that another who had won a World Cup did not serve a full season. The main man, the one who made it all possible, was staunch and unswerving.
When it was speculated, usually mischievously by jealous rival fans, that he would one day lose interest and Chelsea would return to the ranks of the ordinary, the riposte was always the same: would he build a £1bn stadium if he didn’t care? As a retort, it was fairly unanswerable.
It adds to uncertainty around Chelsea, who appear to have gone cold on Maurizio Sarri interest
Abramovich’s news came on same day it was revealed Thibaut Courtois is expected to leave
Well, now he isn’t. Not short-term, at least. The statement announcing this news talked about a changing investment climate, but we know what has really altered. Abramovich is not prepared to join a club that doesn’t want him as a member. He isn’t going to sink £1bn into a country that will not grant him a visa.
He can come and go with his newly-awarded Israeli citizenship — those who are close to him say he has always been defined more by his faith than his nationality — and his British visa application lies in the bin. Whether this is a hardball negotiating technique, or a point of no return, cannot be calculated just yet.
Abramovich does not give interviews and is not about to start now. The official confirmation that Stamford Bridge will not be rebuilt, short-term at least, is as close as it gets. The message is plain anyway.
What remains to be seen is whether this is the beginning of a conscious uncoupling. Nobody who has burnt through as many managers, made as many signings, sunk fortunes into the transfer marker and written a book or more of compensation cheques, does so to come second.
Abramovich is driven only by winning — in business, life and sport. There is a reason that no Chelsea manager has survived not winning the Premier League or Champions League, bar Mourinho.
Chelsea are now smallest of the Premier League Big Six and losing Abramovich doesn’t help
Yet if this does mark a change in his relationship with Chelsea, how long can he last? If he dials down investment, if he is bitter about the cost of competition in a country that has rejected him, could he sit idly in the stand as his team struggled? Abramovich does not seem a man who will exist easily with failure.
Yet Chelsea’s change of direction now makes them the smallest of the Big Six, with a ground capacity not far in excess of 40,000. In time, that will catch up with them, it will affect their drive to sustainability, their hopes of competing with the wealthier Manchester clubs. Does Abramovich tolerate that — or is relinquishing Chelsea altogether his final contemptuous act?
If so, it is not necessarily the end. This is a great, successful club, with a fabulous, marketable name, in an upmarket corner of London. It is, in essence, the only West End club. It is impossible to imagine that there will not be suitors, major investors — from abroad again — who will want a piece of that action.
Others would surely be driven by an opportunity to make Chelsea great again, although the asking price would be enormous. Yet would they have the drive of Abramovich; would they have the desire to go again and again, to not accept the tiniest drop in standards, to be utterly relentless in the quest for success? Would they, for instance, be willing to sink £1bn into a project, just to put an extra 19,000 seats in an arena?
Abramovich is a great owner, and his sort doesn’t come along every week — as Chelsea, not to mention the Home Office, could be about to find out.