In his pulpy London gangster film, RocknRolla, Guy Ritchie saved the villain’s role for oligarch Roman Abramovich.
The antagonist wasn’t called Abramovich. He was called Uri Omovich. But it was transparently Mr. Abramovich – a silken Russian aesthete in the midst of infiltrating upper-class British society, a component of which is running a soccer club.
The secret to a good movie villain is aspiration. It should be someone whose persona and lifestyle cause envy in the viewer. At the moment of RocknRolla’s 2008 release, nothing epitomized this hook better than the oligarch. And there was no more famous oligarch than Mr. Abramovich.
It isn’t hard to see the appeal. You pull a quick one in some dreary, far-flung place and then move your dirty money to a much nicer place. Once there, you spend lavishly to purchase an entrée, all while sitting a bit above the fray. It’s Gatsby with different set dressing.
That’s an old story. Mr. Abramovich’s addition was his common touch. In order to ingratiate himself with the local proletariat as well as the aristocrats, he bought a ball club.
A former soldier and low-level hustler, Mr. Abramovich made his money in oil and gas during the post-Soviet gold rush. How does one go from running a doll business out of a Moscow apartment to co-owning one of the biggest petroleum concerns in the world? Don’t ask. That’s how.
Mr. Abramovich was still in his 30s when he popped up in London’s moneyed circles like a Great White in a swimming pool.
His first move was buying Chelsea Football Club – a storied, if perpetually middling, team. Mr. Abramovich injected hundreds of millions into the operation, turning Chelsea into a global powerhouse nearly overnight.
Because there wasn’t much hope of recouping his money, this struck the average fan as an act of outrageous charity. This nice, foreign gentleman was refurbishing some rundown cultural real estate.
It was considered bad form to look at it another way – that Mr. Abramovich was buying complicity as well as trophies. As long as he kept the sports tabs busy, no one wanted to look too deeply into where his money came from or who’d been run over in the getting of it.
People knew on some basic level that Mr. Abramovich was probably a bad guy in business with some much worse guys. It was no secret that he was a great favourite of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But that just added to the SPECTRE feel of the whole set-up.
So for 20 years, Mr. Abramovich didn’t have to bother deceiving anyone. They deceived themselves.
Then Ukraine happened.
Mr. Abramovich’s first move was putting out a limp statement expressing regret. That went poorly.
His next move was attempting to foist Chelsea on his own charitable foundation. The trustees of the foundation wanted nothing to do with it.
His third move was announcing he would sell the club and give “all net proceeds” to “all victims of the war.” That prompted a general parsing of the exact meaning of “net proceeds” and “all victims.”
The fourth move was made on Thursday by the British government. It has frozen Mr. Abramovich’s assets, including the soccer club.
As a result, Chelsea can no longer buy and sell players. It can’t renew contracts. All incoming money can only be spent on the bare minimum of “football-related activity.” In order to sell the club, Mr. Abramovich will need government approval.
While our collective thinking about the way the world works has evolved in the past three weeks, it’s only come so far. At the moment, the big soccer story in Britain is ‘What happens to Chelsea now?’
You’d think that before jumping into that discussion, the people who helped launder Mr. Abramovich’s image might instead ask themselves, ‘How did this happen in the first place?’
Greed is what happened, and the willful ignorance that so often goes with it. Mr. Abramovich located a weakness in the European psyche – the love of frivolous games – and exploited it. Had he said he was pushing millions into public health care, people would have clapped for a couple of days and then forgotten all about it. But sports – that’s important.
Mr. Abramovich identified a way to obtain the same clout you’d get doling out a hundred political backhanders, but with added sex appeal.
To judge the success of the Abramovich approach, look at what’s happened since. The soccer market has been flooded with Saudi, Qatari, Russian and Chinese money.
If this new generation of super-rich sports owners aren’t doing this to turn a profit (and most aren’t), what exactly are they buying?
Nobody wanted to investigate that too closely until the tanks started rolling.
Now Mr. Abramovich’s most brilliant stroke – putting the soccer club out in front of all the other businesses – is his biggest problem. In styling himself as the great benefactor, he also made himself a target.
The team is now a financial hostage of the British government. What does that mean?
The club will be sold to other rich people who will carry on as before. Mr. Abramovich, a citizen of Israel and Portugal as well as Russia, will come out of this diminished, but still fantastically wealthy. People will continue rallying around anyone offering a free lunch. So, nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.
But in the short term, three goals have been achieved.
Punishing Mr. Abramovich makes Britain look tough on Russia without having to go to the trouble of doing anything to Russia;
Unable to take out the villain who is its real target, Britain whacks a lesser villain instead (but hey, good enough for Guy Ritchie);
And it warns anyone else looking to pull the same trick – you can buy it, but whether you keep it is up to us.
So in this complicated story of dark money and shady characters, who is it that turns out to be the actual capo dei capi? Her Majesty’s Government.
It isn’t much of an accomplishment in real-world terms. What it is instead is highly effective brand management.
Which fits, because that’s what this has been about all along.