Russia's roots run deep in the Premier League

Chelsea among clubs that could be affected by British response to Russian spy attack

The Russian flag has been there so long now that it hardly attracts any notice, just another familiar piece of background scenery in the global, cosmopolitan Premier League.

It hangs from the upper deck of the Matthew Harding Stand at Stamford Bridge, the home of Chelsea Football Club. In its central blue band, spelled out in white block capitals, are the words “The Roman Empire.”

It is not intended, of course, as a political symbol. It is not demarcating this patch of West London as sovereign Russian territory. It is simply a display of gratitude to Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who arrived at Chelsea in 2003 and, cracking open his sizable bank account, quickly turned the club into one of football’s modern superpowers, serial champions of England and, at their 2012 peak, champions of Europe.

And yet, as relations between Britain and Russia strain and crack in the aftermath of the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on March 4th, that flag becomes a symbol of something else — how difficult it would be to punish Russia’s ruling class by separating its oligarchs from their property in Britain.


Both Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, have raised the possibility of striking back at Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, by targeting the assets of oligarchs living in London. Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure in Moscow, has suggested such a move would win public approval in Russia. Send a message by punishing those close to Putin, those who benefit from his power, goes the logic.

But any move against the oligarchs would not simply be a case of seizing the Belgravia townhouses or freezing the bank accounts of a cadre of unfamiliar names. It would not be neat, or quiet. It would be high-profile, complex, almost unimaginable. Russian money has laid down the deepest of roots in British life.

Abramovich is not the only link between English soccer and Russia, of course. Across London, another oligarch, Alisher Usmanov, owns 30 per cent of Arsenal. His longtime business partner, the British-Iranian Farhad Moshiri, is now the largest shareholder at Everton, where the training ground bears the name of USM, a holding company established by Usmanov.

A third Premier League team, Bournemouth, has been bankrolled by a Russian benefactor: Maxim Demin, a former trader and petrochemical magnate, bought the financially stricken club in 2011, and has since transformed it into a Premier League mainstay. Two other teams — Portsmouth and Reading — have been in Russian hands in recent years.

Manchester United, meanwhile, announced in 2013 a five-year deal that made Aeroflot, the Russian state airline, its official carrier. A year earlier, Chelsea had unveiled Gazprom, Russia’s energy monolith, as its official energy partner. Gazprom is also one of the principal sponsors of the Champions League.

The rationale behind all of those deals, according to Paul Brannagan, a lecturer in sport management and policy at Manchester Metropolitan University, is Russia’s desire to gain what is known as “soft power” in the West.

“Russia is doing what Qatar has done,” he said, pointing out that hosting the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2018 World Cup is part of Russia’s larger strategy. “That gets the world’s attention, and then it is a matter of seeing what other parts of the state or the economy can benefit through that.”

The sponsorships by Russian firms are a clear part of that strategy. The motivations of individual oligarchs who have invested in sports teams, whether in England or elsewhere, are harder to unpack.

When Abramovich, the first of the super-wealthy Russians to arrive, landed at Chelsea, he insisted in one of the only interviews he has given that he was “bored” and simply looking for a new challenge.

The story goes that he fell in love with soccer after attending a game between Manchester United and Real Madrid in 2003. He completed the deal to buy Chelsea in only 15 minutes, according to the club’s former chief executive, Trevor Birch. It was the impulse purchase of a thrill-seeker with money to burn.

Beneath the surface, though, it was always assumed Abramovich’s motivation was security. He retained a close relationship with Putin and the Kremlin, but he also had seen, since Putin rose to power in 2000, what had happened to those who fell out of favour.

Owning Chelsea offered “a form of protection” should Abramovich ever suffer the same fate, the authors Mark Hollingsworth and Stewart Lansley wrote in their book about oligarchs in England, “Londongrad: From Russia With Cash.” London, and by extension Chelsea, offered Abramovich a base and an escape route, the authors argued, in the event he needed either one.

Those within the Russian émigré community, however, contend that Abramovich’s priorities were focused more on his new home than on the country he had left behind.

“It was essentially an entry ticket to the British public and the British establishment,” said Alexander Goldfarb, a friend of Abramovich’s late mentor and then foe, Boris Berezovsky, and now director of the Litvinenko Justice Foundation, which is named for another Russian poisoned in Britain. “All of these arrivals to London are new rich, and they are very keen to get as much legitimacy as possible.”

The most common way of doing that is to send their children to some of Britain’s best schools — many of whom have raised their prices, such is the demand from the global super-rich now residing in London. But a far quicker route, at least for Abramovich, was to buy into the Premier League, regularly ranked above even the royal family as one of Britain’s most significant 21st century cultural exports.

In one stroke, Abramovich’s purchase of an iconic football club distanced him from Russia and established him in Britain, said Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian opposition figure now living in London.

He was no longer just another oligarch who had made an unimaginable fortune in the dubious, chaotic world of post-Soviet Russia, drawing private profit from the country’s vast mineral wealth. He was not just another gaudy standard-bearer for an influx known for its excess. He was, instead, the benign, silent benefactor of Chelsea, who became champions of England only two years after he arrived.

To some extent, his strategy worked. Abramovich — like Usmanov — now has all the trappings of the British establishment: a country home, luxury properties in London’s most exclusive neighbourhoods and a football team as a plaything.

The one doubt that lingers is how permanent all of it is. Navalny has named Abramovich and Usmanov as prime targets if May follows through on threats to strip Russian tycoons of their assets.

“Britain has some of the most advanced laws in the world already in place,” Ashurkov said. What has always been lacking, he said, is “the political will to use them.”

One tool under consideration is Britain’s power to use so-called Unexplained Wealth Orders to demand that those who may have benefited from corruption prove the provenance of their money. That, according to Goldfarb, makes Abramovich especially vulnerable: His lawyers admitted, during 2012 civil litigation against Berezovsky, that the auction of the energy giant Sibneft — which turned Abramovich into one of Russia’s richest men — was “rigged.” “Abramovich would be a prime candidate given his testimony,” Goldfarb said. “And there are legal grounds for moving against this wealth.”

Like Ashurkov, though, Goldfarb and others contend any such manouvere is unlikely. Not just because of the escalation in tension that would ensue, or the furor that seizing a club as big as Chelsea would create, but because of just how complicated the process would be, just how entangled Russian money is in the modern British economy.

Beyond the real estate brokers and the bankers and the wealth managers who have helped Russians invest their money in all areas of British life, there are major institutions that are now, at least in part, Russian.

Like that flag hanging from the upper deck at Chelsea, which is not so much a political statement as a symbol of political reality. Russia is ensconced in English football, and in British life, and has been for so long that, now, it does not draw much notice. It is just another part of the background scenery. – New York Times service