The Curse of Abramovich: How Money Killed England

Follow me on a journey to a mystical land: a land so foreign to many, yet ever so prevalent throughout the world. A land across the water in the continent known as Europe, where they play a little game called football. I’m not talking about the kind of football stateside where Tom Brady ridiculously dominates his opponents year by year  and talented running backs are constantly marred by off the field scandals each week. No, I’m talking about soccer. Get ready America, because one thing is certain: the soccer train is coming, and it is time for everyone to hop on board, because it is here to stay. Aboard that train is a boatload of money bursting out the doors in every cargo hold. However, this may be causing more problems than one would think. Is all this money necessarily a good thing for the development of the sport?

To discover how European soccer works, nothing is more important than understanding the role that money plays. In soccer, money doesn’t just talk, it screams. It screams louder than a man lost at sea trying to flag down a ship. Yes, it really is that important. See, players are not directly traded for each other and there is no draft; instead, teams negotiate a transfer for the player by sending a team a certain amount of money for the player’s services. For example, Real Madrid paid Manchester United £80 million in 2009 for Cristiano Ronaldo. Manchester United lost its golden boy, but had a whopping £80 million to reinvest in other players, or use for other purposes, like improving training facilities or, in Arsenal’s case a few years ago, building a new stadium.

Alright, enough with the boring logistics of it all, let’s dive right in. Enter the man of the hour, the man who changed the world of soccer as we know it, Roman Abramovich. This Russian college dropout turned billionaire through risky oil-export deals is the main culprit behind soccer’s transformation — England’s in particular — into one massive game of Monopoly. In 2003, the billionaire embarked on a new adventure, purchasing the London based club Chelsea F.C. from its previous vacuous owner, Ken Bates. Chelsea was once a club devoid of talent with ambitions rising not much higher than the ground itself. This all changed overnight under Abramovich’s reign. He immediately embarked on a mission to transform Chelsea into a global superpower, on par with teams like Manchester United and Barcelona. He did this by investing an absurd amount of money on improving the clubs facilities and by purchasing world class players. In just two years, Chelsea was crowned the king of England, and even reached the semi-final of Europe’s elite competition, the Champions League. Clearly this type of turnover is beyond impressive. Abramovich flipped the script in Europe faster than ‘Despacito’ blew up on the charts. And things didn’t end here; Chelsea’s emergence as a world power was only a catalyst for what was to come in the future.

Roman Abramovich’s transformation of Chelsea inspired others to do the same. In 2008, Manchester United’s dormant neighbors, Manchester City, received a financial stimulus in the same manner that Chelsea did. They were bought out by the oil rich Abu Dhabi United Group. They too found quick success, winning the Premier League in both 2012 and 2014. The club, now valued at over a billion dollars, has become as attractive as any global destination, even enticing world renowned coach Pep Guardiola to join the squad, only having previously managed global superpowers FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich. Ten years ago, Manchester City would not even remotely seem like an attractive destination compared to these other two clubs, but the power of money has twirled its magical wand to do just that. But here is where my question is raised: is more money necessarily better?

With the introduction of Chelsea FC and Manchester City into the small group of England’s Elites — Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham — surely this will benefit Premier League teams in general, right? Well, maybe not. It cannot be denied that the money flow in England is phenomenal and has created an incredibly competitive league at the top, with six teams out of twenty realistically fighting for the title, which far exceeds the number of competitive teams in most other soccer leagues around the world. However, this arms race in England has almost halted the progression of English teams from competing with other European superpowers in other countries. These English teams can no longer be considered amongst Europe’s best. Long gone are the days of an English team contending for Europe’s highest honor, the Champions League, with only 2 of the past 12 winners coming from England. Those wins aside, it’s been years since any English team has been viewed as a potential favorite to take home the trophy, yet alone a serious contender.

The Champions League title is the highest honor any team can strive for, as it crowns that team as essentially the best in the world. Teams qualify for the Champions League by finishing in a certain position in their domestic league. For example, England, Germany, and Spain each have their top four teams qualify for the Champions League, while a lesser league like in Italy only has three teams qualify. Competing and advancing in the Champions League is of the utmost importance for these European teams. There is no greater stage in Europe that shines brighter than the Champions League does. This competition is largely dominated by world superpowers; in fact, the only teams to have won the competition since 2012 has been either Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich. The growing divide in world superpowers has become ever evident from the increased domestic competition stemming from England, which prohibits these teams from forming a squad capable of going toe to toe with any of these great teams.

From the outside looking in, it should seem like England should dominate the world, especially with all they have, but that is exactly their problem. Increases in capital flows have created an increasingly competitive market at the top, prohibiting them from forming a super team with realistic chances of competing for the Champions League title. English teams can no longer entice all the top players to join their squads as teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona can. In England, finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Champions League is never a guarantee, so players are hesitant to join a team that may accomplish nothing for them, with the exception of potentially winning a domestic title. In other countries like Spain, there are at most three teams at the top — in many cases just one or two — attracting all the talent. These teams can promise consistent participation in the Champions League while also making a run at the domestic league title. This allows these teams to form a more potent squad, capable of going the distance in Europe, and always being in the mix for the trophy. In England, with the big money backed big five — Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea — and alongside the impressive rise of Tottenham Hotspur, England is set for a deadlock at the top for a while, prohibiting any single team to emerge as a true challenger to the likes of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.

While claiming Europe’s crown as Champion League winners may be out of reach for English teams for the foreseeable future, winning the English Premier League means more now than it ever has. There are now six top competitive teams, a feat that has never occurred in England before, or really any other top European league for that matter. This in turn has attracted a handful of great coaches to the country to manage these teams, including Jürgen Klopp, Antonio Conte, and Mauricio Pochettino. This has transformed the Premier League into its own dramatic television series, with big personality players and managers controlling the world’s television stage every week. These clashes provide for great entertainment, and fans never have to wait long for the next big game, as teams play each other twice a season, ensuring fans that there will never be a time to relax during the stressful and strenuous English Premier League season.  

Like I said before, it all started with Abramovich. He saw an area for growth in England and he exploited it. He set a precedent for other to follow, and others have. More and more clubs are being bought by billionaires now, trying to emulate Abramovich’s success with Chelsea. This ideology has even crept it’s way out of England and into Germany and America, with big sponsors like Red Bull buying teams. The irony with this all is that as more teams do this, the less successful they will turn out to be on a global stage, as evident with England’s top teams failing to compete with Europe’s top tier clubs. Funnier still, there may be nothing English teams can do to alleviate this struggle except wait for the rest of the world to catch up to them in terms of monetary investment. Their greatest hope for Champion’s League success rests on top leagues around the world emulating England and forming a perfectly widespread competitive market at the top, ensuring that super teams aren’t formed. Whether England can break the curse of Abramovich remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain, we will all be watching.

Josh Brodbine is a new writer for the Review, studying in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.  He can be reached at brodbine@umich.edu

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