At the bar in a small hospitality suite off Stamford Bridge was a figure who had not been seen at the stadium for three years: Roman Abramovich.
Last November, the Chelsea owner was back in London at his English Premier League club to receive the Israeli President. There was no apparent security entourage surrounding the Russian billionaire and little fuss, just a close associate and Chelsea director Euguene Tenenbaum.
After chatting with guests and posing for photos with President Isaac Herzog in front of the field, the party progressed to afternoon tea for around 50 people with scones and cucumber sandwiches.
Abramovich was hailed with speeches praising his work through Chelsea to fight anti-Semitism. It looked like the gradual reintroduction of Abramovich to a more prominent role at Chelsea coupled with his social activism.
Perhaps a UK visa had to be regained after he withdrew his application for an extension in 2018.
Then everything changed quickly from February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Three months later, Abramovich is replaced as Chelsea owner by a group led by American investor Todd Boehly, an unimaginable prospect when the oligarch was on the field in Abu Dhabi on February 9 and won the FIFA Club World Cup.
It was to be the 21st and final men’s team trophy in 19 years, during which his fortune morphed from a glamorous side that only occasionally contested for the biggest trophies to one of the most successful in European football.
Abramovich tried to cling to Chelsea even as anger mounted over Russia’s unprovoked aggression towards its neighbor, backed not only by loyal fans but also by club greats like John Terry, who dubbed him “the best”.
Within hours of the start of the war, Abramovich was accused in the House of Commons of having links to corrupt activities and paying for political influence in Russia. Demands grew for the British government to sanction Abramovich, which lawmakers said had thwarted his efforts to regain his visa for the past few years.
Seeing the need to act, Abramovich offered cosmetic changes to ownership on February 26, with a pledge to turn over the club’s “administration and care” to the trustees of the charitable foundation.
They hadn’t signed the plan, however, and the vague suggestion failed to quell anger that a man accused of being so closely linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin could retain ownership of a high-profile status symbol in the heart of London.
Another public game to protect his reputation from Putin’s war came on February 28, when Abramovich’s PR urged an obvious move for him to broker peace. Abramovich did not condemn the war and has not yet done so, although just two days before the invasion he spoke about the need to publicly condemn atrocities. The rare comments came in a statement launching a new partnership in support of the Jerusalem-based Holocaust Museum.
“Yad Vashem’s work in preserving the memory of Holocaust victims,” Abramovich said, “helps future generations never forget what anti-Semitism, racism and hatred can lead to when we don’t speak up.”
Yet Abramovich never practiced what he preached, even as the death toll in Ukraine and the Territories was reduced to rubble by Russian bombing and shelling. Yad Vashem ended its partnership with Abramovich, as did the Imperial War Museum in London, where he sponsored a Holocaust exhibition and hosted an event for him hours after Russia’s war against Ukraine began.
It was just six days after the invasion when Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss leaked that Abramovich was indeed trying to sell Chelsea quickly and the club was publicly put up for sale.
“I hope,” said Abramovich, “that I can visit Stamford Bridge one last time to say goodbye to all of you personally.”
A week later all immediate hopes of a return to London were ended by the government. Sanctions and travel restrictions were imposed on Abramovich, his assets were frozen and Chelsea were only allowed to operate under the terms of a government-issued license until the end of May.
New playing cards could not be sold by Chelsea. Players could not be given new contracts. Department stores also had to close.
The job of finding a buyer for Chelsea was given to New York-based merchant bank Raine Group. A number of potential investors went public, some seemingly more profitable owners than others, before the bank shortlisted four bidders in early April.
The sale ended where it started with Wyss.
The Raine Group — working with Abramovich’s associates on the Chelsea board — eventually selected the group with Wyss and Boehly, co-owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with investments from Clearlake Capital.
The sale price was £2.5 billion ($3.2 billion), the highest ever for a team in world sport, with proceeds going to a foundation supporting Ukrainian war victims. Boehly has also had to commit to investing £1.75 billion ($2.2 billion) in teams and infrastructure over the coming years.
The final phase of the process highlighted just how politically entangled the process was, as UK and European authorities needed approval, which sanctioned Abramovich and ensured he would not benefit from the sale.
It was a brief conclusion to his 19 years of ownership.
After buying Chelsea for £140m in 2003, Abramovich was left with nothing. Not even repaying the £1.6billion in loans he had to write off to allow the club to be sold and keep playing.
It was never about the money for Abramovich. More about status and winning trophies.
“In hindsight, especially with the public profile it would bring me, I might have thought differently about owning a club,” Abramovich was quoted as saying when telling Forbes a year before losing control of Chelsea. “But at the time, I just saw this incredible game and, in one way or another, I wanted to be a part of it.”
Not anymore, at least in England.
Ultimately, the association with Putin that Abramovich sought to distance himself from for so long cost him the ability to retain ownership of Chelsea.
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