The 19 years in which Roman Abramovich has owned Chelsea have seen the west London club become the talk of the British press. Until recent days, it’s largely been for the impact the 55-year-old and his billions have had on the football pitch. Now, Thomas Tuchel’s side prepare for a cup final at a time when their ties to Russia are under the sharpest of spotlights.
Chelsea are among the most visible representations of Russian influence beyond its border, and in particular in London. The club is a footballing superpower bankrolled to the tune of billions by one of the most wealthiest people on the planet. Abramovich has consistently denied links with Vladimir Putin, going so far as to launch a libel claim over the suggestion that he had bought the club in 2003 on the Russian president’s instructions.
As one of the most high profile Russian individuals in the U.K., Abramovich finds himself at the center of the discussion over the country’s influence in London in particular. On Wednesday, Labour MP Chris Bryant used parliamentary privilege to discuss a leaked 2019 document from the U.K.’s Home Office in which it was alleged Abramovich was a person of interest to the British government “due to his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices. An example of this is Abramovich admitting in court proceedings that he paid for political influence.”
Bryant went on to suggest that consideration should be given to seizing some of Abramovich’s assets, including his 15 bedroom mansion in Kensington valued at a reported $200 million. Then there was Chelsea. “Surely Mr Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country?” asked the MP for Rhondda, South Wales.
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Stripping the European champions from their owner would bring with it an almighty headache, to say the least, in the shape of the $2 billion debt Chelsea owe to Abramovich. The club would not be able to repay it. This is what looms over club, country and continent while manager Thomas Tuchel tries to focus on an actual football match.
Equally the status of an EFL Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool, one which will draw a sizeable global audience, brings with it the prospect of pro-Ukraine gestures amid Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. England’s Football Association will not take action against managers or players who do so, as the Wembley arch could be seen lit in blue and yellow as a gesture of solidarity.
“We should not pretend that this is not an issue,” said Tuchel. “The situation in general for me, my staff and everybody at Cobham is horrible. Nobody expected this. It’s pretty unreal. It’s clouding our minds, it’s clouding our excitement towards the final and it brings huge uncertainty, much more to all people and families who are actually in the moment more involved than us. Our best wishes, regards and thoughts are with them, which is most important.
“There are so many uncertainties around the situation of our club and the situation in the U.K. with scenarios like this. It makes no sense if I comment on it. We are aware of it.
“It’s the right for the team and the staff — and I include myself in that — to be not political, to do sport and focus on sport, not because we are hiding.”
Asked to address whether potential sanctions on Russia may impact Chelsea, Tuchel added: “I am aware of all these scenarios and discussions, at the moment I would love to take my right not to comment until there is a decision made, but we are aware of it. It’s distracting and worrying us. To a certain degree I can understand it, the critical opinions towards the club and us in the end who represent the club.
“We cannot fully free ourselves from it, but maybe people also understand that me as a coach or the players don’t have the insight what is really going on.
“The impact is clear and the discussions have an impact, but let’s be a bit more patient and understand what the measurements will be. Then we have to maybe deal with it and adapt.”
It rather emphatically sets in the shade footballing matters on Sunday, where Chelsea have a near fully fit squad to choose from with only Ben Chilwell unavailable. Tuchel enjoyed teasing the possibility that Reece James could return from two months on the sidelines with a hamstring tear. He appears to be genuinely relishing the conundrum of whether to reward Kepa Arrizabalaga for his good performances earlier in the EFL Cup or parachute first-choice goalkeeper Edouard Mendy back into the side.
Sunday’s League Cup final represents a meeting of minds between the former Mainz and Borussia Dortmund managers Tuchel and Jurgen Klopp. If the former emerges victorious, he will have helped N’Golo Kante and Marcos Alonso join Cesar Azpilicueta as the Chelsea players to have won every major club honor available to a footballer in England.
Rarely have such storylines felt so insignificant. What might be a showpiece football match instead promises to be another canvas marked by the great tragedy unfurling in Ukraine.