Foreign ownership of Premier League clubs is now the new normal, but it might have all been different if Roman Abramovich hadn’t paved the way nearly 15 years ago by purchasing Chelsea for a relatively modest £140 million. The Russian billionaire arrived at Stamford Bridge in July 2003 and had spent a staggering £100 million on transfers less than two months later. Within two years, Chelsea won the Premier League title under Jose Mourinho, and Abramovich’s policy of bringing in big money stars and regularly rotating managers has served the club well ever since.
Looking back on the 50-year-old’s trophy-laden stint in West London, he has arguably been the biggest influence on the English game since the turn of the millennium. While Arsene Wenger has brought fitness and flair to the Premier League during his two-decade stay at the Emirates Stadium, Abramovich’s pragmatism and ruthlessness, coupled with a new benchmark for spending power, forced everyone else to play catch-up, both on and off the pitch.
His investments, which surpassed £1 billion last year, have been the foundation for the most successful period in the club’s history and culminated with the special Champions League win in Munich in 2012. Chelsea show no signs of slowing down under Abramovich either, as Antonio Conte guided the club to a fourth Premier League title during the 2016/17 season. It is no surprise that he is seen as the definitive case study for other investors across the globe looking to make their mark on the English game.
“A number of these owners now, though, are what we call them trophy asset hunters,” football finance expert at Sheffield Hallam University, Rob Wilson says. “Abramovich was one when he took over at Chelsea – he wanted to hold that Champions League trophy above his head and say to the rest of the world that he had built this club, which is effectively what he was able to do.”
Abramovich’s success story at Chelsea has inspired more and more people to buy into the Premier League. Not a single top-flight club was foreign owned before the Russian changed the face of the game 14 years ago, but a staggering 15 of last season’s top 20 teams were either part or wholly owned by overseas investors. Attracted by the recent record £5.14 billion TV deal and increasing potential to turn a profit, investors see elite teams as lucrative assets.
Manchester City were the first club to follow the path set out by Abramovich when they were bought by Sheikh Mansour, back in 2008. City were battling to stay in the Premier League 18 months earlier but a host of world-class signings, including the likes of Sergio Aguero and David Silva, enabled them to finally usurp local rivals Manchester United and lift the top-flight title in the year Chelsea were champions of Europe – 2012.
More recently, Leicester City enjoyed their own rags to riches success after the arrival of Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, chairman of King Power International Group. The Foxes weren’t as extravagant in the transfer market as Chelsea or Man City, but several astute signings – Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in particular – and the appointment of former Blues boss Claudio Ranieri enabled them to complete a remarkable title win during the 2015/16 season.
Success stories such as these are likely to become more common as English-owned clubs appear to be a dying breed. Three-quarters of the Premier League are now backed by foreign investment, with Liverpool’s John W. Henry and Tom Werner (USA), Everton’s Farhad Moshiri (Iran), Southampton’s Katharina Liebherr (Germany) and Watford’s Pozzo family (Italy) a testament to the growing appeal of the EPL to interested parties abroad.
Foreign investment is also transforming England’s second tier, the Championship. Nottingham Forest became the latest club to benefit last month, when successful shipping magnate, Vangelis Marinakis completed a takeover. The Greek already has a long-term plan in place to get the Reds back into the Premier League after claiming the Midlands outfit has “huge” potential. Several other Football League clubs, including Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa, are also now owned by a new wave of rich Chinese business groups and entrepreneurs. More clubs now have growing funds for star players and new stadiums, which could level the playing field in the coming years.
So it all comes back to Abramovich. The Russian was a trendsetter, a visionary who transformed a great club, bringing big names, big trophies and unforgettable memories for fans. Now others are following suit.