LONDON – When you have grown up in the Communist regime of the former Soviet Union, started your business career importing rubber ducks and becoming the 12th-richest person in Russia thanks to owning an oil company, then being accused of “failing to demonstrate even a minimum amount of manners and education” is unlikely to bother you.
The criticism came from Renzo Ulivieri, the chairman of the Italian Football Coaches Association who accused Chelsea of speaking to Italy coach Antonio Conte “without warning” about succeeding interim manager Guus Hiddink at Stamford Bridge.
Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, is a self-made billionaire (OK, he probably had some help from people up high in Moscow). I don’t know any billionaires, self-made or otherwise, but my working-class guess is that they are bothered about very little apart from where their next million is coming from.
They can, of course, be generous to those they feel deserve some of their riches. A few years ago a friend was on holiday and enjoying the warm sea when he saw what he thought could be a dangerous fish swimming toward a boy who was playing ball with his pals nearby. To be on the safe side, my friend grabbed hold of the boy and moved him to safety, explaining what he was doing.
On the beach a man in a suit asked him what he was doing. “I just thought your son might be in danger,” he said and told the gentleman what had happened. “He is not my son,” said the suit who, after a phone conversation said to my friend: “His father thanks you very much for your help.”
The danger over, the fun and games resumed. When my friend was drying himself the man in the suit asked if he had a business card so he could tell the boy’s father who had helped his son. My friend thought it unusual, but found a business card and handed it over.
Two weeks later there was a knock at my friend’s door. “This is for you, sir,” said the man in a cap handing him a package. “So is this,” he added pointing to a Range Rover worth £90,000. My friend opened the envelope where there was a piece of notepaper with Roman Abramovich’s name on it with the message “Mr. Abramovich thanks you for your help with his son.”
Abramovich is one of the most high-profile men in European football, yet at the same time probably the least known. He has never given an interview since assuming control of Chelsea in 2003 and those closest to him, who could be counted on one hand, have only one-paragraph platitudes to say about their boss.
The Russian has money, lots of it, and when Chelsea played Monaco 12 years ago, Abramovich invited the squad on to his yacht. Correction, one of his yachts which apparently had gold toilets — the metal not the color. “I had a wee on a million pounds,” said one bemused player.
It was in Monte Carlo that a chance encounter with a British expat revealed a rare Abramovich financial failure. I asked the guy if he lived in Monaco. “Yes, up there,” he said pointing to a Dallas-type mansion. “I had one of Abramovich’s men on the phone to me saying he’d like to buy it. Offered me $30 million.”
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘not for sale’. Week later the bloke came back and said Mr. Abramovich is prepared to offer $35 million.”
“What did you say?”
“I said ‘not for sale’. When he came back with an offer of $40 million, I asked if I could speak to Mr. Abramovich as I had something to ask him. The bloke said he would pass on any question. I said can you ask him which word he doesn’t understand — ‘not’, ‘for’ or ‘sale’. He never came back to me.”
Former Arsenal vice chairman David Dein memorably said when he bought Chelsea: “Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tanks on the lawn and is firing £50 notes at us.”
Chelsea’s policy under Abramovich has been to buy the best players available and rotate the manager. Stability is an innocent bystander and the theory seems to be that if the players are good enough then it is almost irrelevant who the manager is. Chelsea’s impressive collection of silverware under Abramovich tends to prove this.
There have been nine managers — plus Hiddink twice an interim — under Abramovich, men who have won the World Cup, Champions League and domestic honors in various countries, all proven winners, almost a Who’s Who of football, yet the Russian regards compensation as an occupational hazard.
Conte should be under no illusion about the man he will be working for or his expectations. If he is, he can speak to Jose Mourinho, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas-Boas or Carlo Ancelotti to name just four. Serial winners all dismissed by serial sacker Abramovich.
When Abramovich came into English football, Chelsea was able to buy pretty well whoever it wanted. Money was no object. Since then, Manchester City and PSG have been taken over by oil-rich Middle Eastern owners while the cream of world superstars still find their way to Real Madrid and Barcelona. Chelsea is no longer the go-to club.
Abramovich will loosen the purse-strings for Conte after a year of parsimony by Chelsea standards and the team which won the title less than a year ago certainly needs new faces if it is to be a contender again. Willian and Diego Costa have been the only Chelsea players to do themselves justice this season and one wonders whether Eden Hazard, Oscar and Cesc Fabregas are already past their sell-by date.
Saturday mid-table Chelsea hosts a resurgent West Ham. If the Hammers win and other results go their way, they could find themselves in nosebleed territory third place.
West Ham has been as good as Chelsea has been poor since Slaven Bilic succeeded Sam Allardyce last summer. In Dimitri Payet it has one of the outstanding players of the season, a midfielder of genuine class who fully deserved his recall to the France squad. West Ham supporters have a song about Payet which claims he is better than Zinedine Zidane.
Maybe not, but the player born on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean is certainly a better attacking midfielder than any player in the Premier League with the exception of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez.
Chelsea may still have an incredibly rich benefactor, but as it is unlikely to be playing in a European competition next season it is no longer the attraction it was.
There are some things, apart from a Monaco mansion, that money cannot buy.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.