The battle for the chic and popular Chelsea, the former toy of Roman Abramovich


Chelsea fans protest the proposed takeover by the controversial American Ricketts family ahead of the game against Brentford.Image AP

No to the Ricketts† That was the message Chelsea fans had gathered on Saturday afternoon near The Butcher’s Hook, the pub opposite Stamford Bridge where the West London club had been founded 117 years ago. Where fans protested against the European Super League last spring, this time the fury was directed against the American Ricketts family, who are favorites to take over the club from disgraced oligarch Roman Abramovich. The 1-4 defeat to little neighbor Brentford later that afternoon did not improve the mood of the club faithful.

The European and world champion is in an existential crisis. Although the threat of bankruptcy has quickly disappeared, there are fears that the club will find a controversial owner again. After the eighteen ‘bought’ glory years under Vladimir Putin’s favorite oligarch, Chelsea now threatens to fall into the hands of a very wealthy Nebraska family that supported the presidency of Donald Trump. And then there are also Islamophobic comments from the paterfamilias.

The Ricketts are favored by the New York investment bank appointed by Abramovich to handle the sale. The main competitor is a consortium led by American showbiz billionaire Todd Boehly, which also includes Swiss philanthropist billionaire Hansjörg Wyss and British entrepreneur (and Tottenham fan) Jonathan Goldstein.

Property

An outsider is Nick Candy, a scion of the Cypriot diaspora who, together with his brother Christian, has become very wealthy in London real estate in recent decades, profiting in part from the Russian money that has flooded the British capital. Candy, a loyal Chelsea supporter, owns the Chelsea Barracks, the army barracks converted into apartments.

It’s no wonder there is so much interest in Chelsea. Manchester United and Liverpool may have won more, but Chelsea represents London’s most glamorous area. It is within walking distance of King’s Road, the street of the fashion queen of the swinging Sixties, Mary Quant, and Vivienne Westwood, the punk princess of the following decade.

This is also the club of David Mellor, the well-known Conservative politician who fell as a minister in the 1990s for having had adulterous sex with a Spanish actress. In his Chelsea shirt.

The swinging spirit of King’s Road descends on the stadium every game when It’s a Chelsea Thing sounds, a funky song with Callum Hudson-Odoi as a DJ, goldcrest Hakim Ziyech at the grand piano and Mason Mount as a mannequin. A few minutes later sounds The Liquidator, the walk-on music of the seventies. That traditionally ends with a massive and heartfelt ‘We hate Tottenham‘, regardless of the opponent of that day. These diverse scenes say something about the character of the top club from West London: stylish and raw, chic and popular.

Hakim Ziyech (r) will compete with Rico Henry van Brentford on behalf of Chelsea.  Image AP

Hakim Ziyech (r) will compete with Rico Henry van Brentford on behalf of Chelsea.Image AP

lords and lads

That contrast is visible everywhere. In no press room is the atmosphere more relaxed and the buffet more exotic, in the stands the lords and lads are in the same box and the ruined wall of the vanished Shed standing stand are adorned with photos of elegant club legends such as Zola and Desailly.

The Shed was for many years the domain of the Headhunters, the infamous hooligans who gave the club a bad name in the 1970s and 1980s, the decades when Chelsea were middling and even played in the second tier for a while. The resurrection only started in the 1990s, including with Ruud Gullit’s sexy football.

From that rough period stems the partly filmed hooligan trilogy by John King: The Football FactoryEngland Away and headhunters† King is a representative of the popular Chelsea. His club love started when he was seven when some older boys pushed him against a wall asking what club he was for. A friend said, ‘Tell me Chelsea or they’ll beat you up.’

‘Chelsea’, he says, ‘reaches well beyond the stadium’s location, as the bulk of its supporters traditionally come from the poorer parts of west and south London. There is a strong link with the youth culture of the sixties.’

Persona non grata

What makes Chelsea quite unique in the Premier League football landscape is the small, outdated stadium. Good for the atmosphere, bad for the club greenhouse. Plans to move or build a new stadium on this site were abandoned when Abramovich was declared persona non grata by the government.

The new owner is expected to implement these suspended plans, which will cost at least a billion pounds. As for King, the club will come into the hands of the Chelsea Pitch Owners, a club of loyal Chelsea fans who own the lease and go by the name Chelsea Football Club. “The media keep saying that a lot of money is needed. Why? Abramovich is not allowed to collect a penny, so what is all that money for? Give the club to the supporters.’