Column: Chelsea’s Abramovich, sugar dad with teeth
Some billionaires build luxury yachts, some buy art, some donate
to charity. Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich is said to do all those
but collects the scalps of football managers, too.
And why not? Because if there is one thing the super-rich have
in common, it is that their money allows them to do pretty much
what they want, how they want, when they want. They don’t have to
settle for second best.
Andre Villas-Boas knew that when he agreed to work for
Abramovich at Chelsea.
”I will be surprised to be kept on the job if I don’t win,”
the man quickly dubbed ”AVB” by the British media said when
Chelsea hired him eight months ago.
The managerial contract Villas-Boas signed last June said three
years, but the truth was that his tenure was only ever going to be
as long as Abramovich’s short patience.
So let’s not go overboard with the crocodile tears over the
sacking this weekend of AVB. Seven losses and seven draws in 27
Premier League games was never going to be good enough.
Villas-Boas either must or should have known he had this
He looked drained and strained but tried to sound optimistic
after what proved to be his final Chelsea game, a 1-0 loss to West
Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
”In football, there is joy, there is pain and there is another
chance,” he said.
Not this time.
His dismissal cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called
a tragedy, not least because he is expected to be richly
compensated for Abramovich’s change of heart.
Nor, as the head of the English managers’ union dramatically
claimed, is it ”a serious embarrassment to the owner, the club,
the fans and the league” that Abramovich is now seeking his eighth
manager in nine years of owning the club.
No, with sugar daddies, being able to chop and change just goes
with the territory.
English football has been more than happy for wealthy
benefactors from around the world to buy up its marquee clubs and,
as Abramovich did at Chelsea, soak up their debts and use their
rubles, Thai baht, dirhams and dollars to make them competitive
Chelsea fans didn’t care where Abramovich’s money came from.
They celebrated their good fortune by wearing Russian fur hats.
But the other side to this coin is that Abramovich’s estimated
net worth of $13 billion means he can govern on a whim; his
He doesn’t have to be logical or reasonable.
Carlo Ancelotti, AVB’s predecessor, delivered both the Premier
League title and the FA Cup to Abramovich but then was let go after
a subsequent season without trophies. That contract termination and
the hiring of AVB cost Chelsea 28 million pounds ($45 million). In
the real world, such an outlay makes no sense. But for a
billionaire, clearly it doesn’t have to.
Even before the benefit of hindsight, AVB seemed too young and
inexperienced to have much hope of quickly imposing himself at
He was flavor of month when he took the job, because he had won
three trophies in one season with Portuguese side Porto.
But, now 34, he was barely older than Chelsea’s established
stars, including John Terry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Ashley
Cole and Nicolas Anelka, the French striker he later got rid
All remain fine players, despite their advancing years. Chelsea
was runner-up to English champion Manchester United last season.
For a variety of reasons, Villas-Boas has not managed to get the
team to perform for him.
”Each one of them was, or thinks that he is, the superstar of
the team,” another of Abramovich’s former managers, Avram Grant,
said of Chelsea’s marquee players. ”This is one of the main things
in Chelsea – to know how to deal with these players.”
The long-term plan, ”my project” he dubbed it, was that AVB
would gradually replace Chelsea’s aging stars and give the club a
Short-term, however, he was still required to win. Abramovich
seemingly wanted both continuity and revolution. As AVB’s firing
showed, most of all, he wants instant success.
”It’s all about results,” said Grant.
AVB couldn’t deliver, at least not fast enough for Abramovich.
Perhaps impatience is a privilege of billionaires, too.
Some would say that flitting from manager to manager is no way
to run a football club and that Abramovich’s ambition, stated in
2005, ”to build the most successful football club in the world”
won’t happen while he’s so focused on immediate gratification.
But it’s his club. He can do what he wants with it.
As Abramovich said in a rare interview with The Observer
newspaper in 2006, money ”cannot buy you happiness.”
”Some independence, yes.”
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The
Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow
him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester