Cultural Relatives: The Abramovich Era & The Global Financial Crisis
Illustration by Dan Evans


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Cultural Relatives: The Abramovich Era & The Global Financial Crisis

Football, and the world in which it exists, have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. The '90s are long gone and so too is our innocence.

I had presumed – in a way I can only describe as 'naively' – that the Abramovich era and everything it entailed was the supporting act in my football-watching life. And perhaps, because it came second, to some degree it always will be. The Abramovich path to success, as fundamentally opposed to either Fergie or Wenger's respective methods that preceded it. But I came in around 1995, and the Abramovich era kicked off in 2003-04 – so frankly I was just being a maths dummy. He is the majority shareholder in my football-watching life, even if those shares will always have an air of diluted stock in my mind.


'Wait a minute', plenty of people might say. 'Guys had got rich and lavished their money on football clubs long before the Roman Empire; indeed, didn't the very club you claimed was yours as a kid, Blackburn Rovers, catch your eye precisely because of that? And my response would be that I kept supporting them all the way through relegation, forcing myself to check the Division 1 results first, through Robbie Savage, and having a rehydrated Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke up front. Anyway, that was different. Jack Walker, owner of Blackburn Rovers, turned his father's scrap-metal business into a major national steel force over a 40-year period. 40 years is a long time to grind, and at the end of that if you wish to spank massive chunks of your bank statement to procure Alan Shearer for your local football team, then I for one couldn't wish you any more luck in doing so. I would do exactly the same.

Roman Abramovich went from rich to teeth-chatteringly rich in the space of a few years by a process I'll briefly outline for you: Russian government is going bust. Russian government asks for 'loans' from a selection of wealthy businessman. As 'collateral' for said 'loans', they offer the national resources of Russia at ridiculously devalued prices ($100million for all the aluminium, that kind of thing). Loans default. Selection of wealthy businessmen (oligarchs) take collateral. Everyone – except about 99.9% of the Russian population – is happy. That, at least, is a more subtle approach than what allowed the Al Nayhan family to spend their country's future – and remember, there isn't a lot after that future – on players like Jo, Robinho, and Adebayor.


Sometimes it catches me, this truth, this majority shareholder in my football-watching life. I'll be watching the pre-match for City vs. Chelsea, everyone in the studio furrowing their myopic little brows about the difficult season Hazard is having, and that ultimately there is nothing more important to notice than that. Down on the pitch, the latest cars in the garage called Oscar and Willian and Raheem Sterling play against each other. Meanwhile, I'm having out-of-body experience: my incredibly rich oligarch of a father has put something on the TV to entertain me while he goes off to watch it on a larger screen in his office, whilst receiving blowjobs from a variety of escorts of rainbow nationalities and polishing his football miniatures.

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And then the other part of me, the undiluted minority shareholder, still shakes his head and grins at the angles Sergio Aguero can find a finish from; and that slalomy run Yaya does, and how you hope when the ball comes out to him it's time for the shot like a diamond-tipped sledgehammer; and how John Terry is the person on this planet that I most wish, in a very heartfelt way, for bad things to happen to. I genuinely like that he cried, that he will feel some kind of gnawing that he didn't play in a winning European final.

Because I'm hooked. It's gross to think how gross football could get before it truly turned me off. It's getting closer, we all know that, although this season I've had my hardening veins flooded with Leicester-blue elixir, and a line of Payet-coloured powder on the side. I'd have watched anyway. You just know there'll always be a new guy, a Pogba or Griezmann, to force you. But of this I'm sure: Pogba in a Man City shirt, or Griezmann in a Chelsea one, is a diminished commodity. A sub-prime.


The Relative

I can't shake the suspicion that the average American was somewhat more complicit in the collapse of their economy than popular imagination has it. John and Betty Q. Taxpayer. I always enjoy how the description of what happened goes: so these predatory mortgage brokers created gigantic mortgages that the bond traders couldn't wait to get their hands on, just as long as John and Betty would agree to live in a house valued at 4,019 times their annual income. And then it's like someone awkwardly turns the sound down on what John and Betty chose. I know they were cajoled and coerced, but in the land of the individual, the individual has to take some responsibility.

From the outset, the soul of this column lay in a blissful version of the '90s we grew up in, which, in hindsight, was almost entirely accurate. A central storyline of that time, and certainly throbbing in the subtext of pretty much every movie we watched, was that America didn't lose. There was a safe haven on the planet where everything worked. I realise now, with a few more braincells and a little less hair, that there's more nuance to this – but the essence stands. Their economy grew, their stuff was plentiful, and their army won.

READ MORE: Cultural Relatives – Paul Scholes & Ray Allen

As the age of football-from-the-heart wanes – reducing it to a skeleton of individuals and moments, as opposed to any higher meaning of 'a team' – so the last age of innocence goes too. There is no longer a safe haven. Sending the army in now, in most of our minds, guarantees nothing except more chaos. Their economy is a how-to guide for pulling up the drawbridge on the have-nots. And in those movies, they took the most American step possible: instead of dialling down on the whooping, they cranked it up a notch, dressing those same roles in capes and hats, and turned them into superheroes. And it seems like the wider world still can't get enough of its childhood image, America with magic powers. I know I can't – Americans bonding together to get something done still sends a shiver through me, no matter the piece-of-garbage movie I'm watching it in. But it's a shiver now split by a more mature kind of sadness; that unquestioning belief in it has become a thing of my past. I'm working, like most of us are still working, off the remnants of a template where safe prosperity flowed blissfully automatic in our little '90s minds, yanked off the press some time in September, 2001.


And you just know that, whatever's coming, you'll still be watching football.

The Hand of History – Karma Karma, Moscow, 2008

Who knows how the world works? The physical reality: the ground was slippery, John Terry is clumsy and hardly a good finisher. I know that if you outlined for me the resumes of captain and owner – one considering the mothers of teammates' children fair game, serially cheating on his wife and then happily grinning in the photoshoot for Dad of the Year, plus what he'd later say 'in the heat of the moment' to Anton Ferdinand; the other looting his country and essentially laying the stepping-stones with which Putin walked to power – I'd say, okay, we've all done scummy things.

But if you think that all of those things mean that as owner you will then get to watch the captain, leader and legend of your shiniest toy stick away the decisive penalty in your nation's capital, I'd say I'm not sure the world works like that.

A Little Cultural Context

Roman Abramovich apparently made his entry into the world of wealth selling imported rubber ducks to desperate Muscovites from his apartment. Seriously: if you ever find yourself traipsing up flights of stairs in some grim Soviet tower block in order to get your hands on a rubber duck, it's time to have a proper think about things.

Words: @tobysprigings / Illustration: @dan_draws