Roman Abramovich changed the face of English football by taking over Chelsea in 2003.
The Russian billionaire didn’t just turn the London club — at the time something of an under-achiever — into the leading force in England within a couple of years and later into a European and world champion.
He ushered in an era of remarkable spending, the likes of which the game had never seen, that inevitably led to the super-rich from Abu Dhabi, the United States, Asia and, most recently, Saudi Arabia coming in and competing as owners of England’s biggest clubs.
He also ensured the transfer market was distorted by paying over the odds for transfer fees and wages, exacerbating inequalities between the haves and have nots in the English game.
A glance at Abramovich’s 19-year reign, which is set to come to an end after he announced plans to sell Chelsea amid the threat of financial sanctions targeting Russians in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine:
Before Abramovich arrived, Chelsea was widely regarded as a “cup team.” Indeed, its one and only league title came way back in 1955. That quickly changed.
The Abramovich era has seen Chelsea win 19 major trophies, notably the Champions League twice — in 2012 and 2021.
Domestic trophies came thick and fast, and quickly. The first of five Premier League titles came at the end of Abramovich’s second season in control. There have also been five FA Cups and three League Cups.
Add to that two Europa League titles, two UEFA Super Cups, and most recently the Club World Cup — for the first time in the club’s history — in Abu Dhabi last month, which ensured Chelsea had won every possible trophy under Abramovich.
No English team has won more trophies than Chelsea since Abramovich arrived at Stamford Bridge.
To say Abramovich was ruthless when it came to hiring and firing managers would be an understatement. For much of his tenure, failing to win the Premier League effectively spelt the end for a Chelsea manager — like when Carlo Ancelotti was relieved of his job in 2011 in the bowels of Everton’s Goodison Park at the end of his second season in charge, having won the club’s first league-and-cup double in his first.
Claudio Ranieri was the manager when Abramovich arrived and he was dispensed with after just one season.
Jose Mourinho — brash, awash with self-belief, and a tactical genius — was the early face of Abramovich’s Chelsea until he fell out with the Russian in 2007 after a trophy-laden three years. Mourinho came back for a second spell, from 2013-15, and again won the league.
The only other manager to win the league under Abramovich was Antonio Conte, in 2017.
There were a couple of duds hired among the big names, with young Portuguese coach Andre Villas-Boas proving to be far from The Special One in his 8 1/2 months in charge in 2011-12 and Frank Lampard failing to emulate his remarkable playing career at Chelsea as the team’s manager from 2019-21.
Chelsea spent more than 100 million pounds ($135 million) on players in less than seven weeks in the first summer transfer window of Abramovich’s reign. In the second, there was an outlay of another 94 million pounds ($125 million), laying the platform for Mourinho’s trophy surge.
These were unprecented sums, leading to Arsene Wenger — then the manager of Premier League rival Arsenal — describing Chelsea as a “financially doped club” with “unlimited” resources.
The emergence of Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City from 2008 finally gave Chelsea a challenger in the transfer market, but the west London club launched its biggest spending spree yet in the summer of 2020 when there was a remarkable outlay approaching $300 million.
In total, Chelsea has spent more than 2 billion pounds ($2.7 billion) on players under Abramovich.
Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku is the most expensive signing of the Abramovich era, arriving for 97 million pounds ($135 million) last summer for a second spell at the club.
Six other players joined for more than 50 million pounds, including two more center forwards who proved to be flops — Alvaro Morata and Fernando Torres.
One player, in particular, stands out for being a so-called Abramovich signing. That was Ukraine striker Andriy Shevchenko, who was foisted upon Mourinho in 2006 for a then-British record fee of around 30 million pounds (now $40 million) and never lived up to his reputation. Shevchenko reportedly was the reason why a feud erupted between Abramovich and Mourinho, leading to the Portuguese coach’s exit the following year.
Abramovich’s money couldn’t buy everything, though.
One source of frustration has been his inability to have Chelsea play in a stadium with a size that rivals the likes of Manchester United’s Old Trafford and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, maximizing matchday revenues as a result.
Stamford Bridge only has a capacity of around 42,000, a little more than half the seats inside Old Trafford, and Abramovich tried to buy back the freehold — from a fans’ group called Chelsea Pitch Owners — in 2012 as part of his plans for a new stadium.
The idea was to sell that land to fund a move to a stadium on the site of London’s Battersea Power Station, which looms over the River Thames.
Abramovich failed, and put his plans on hold.
Then, in 2018, planning permission was granted for the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge, only for the idea to be shelved because of what the club said was an “unfavourable investment climate.”