Soccer had already begun to change when Roman Abramovich became the controlling owner of Chelsea in the summer of 2003.
The Champions League had grown enough in stature that virtually every major soccer player in the world wanted to play in it. The Bosman ruling of 1995 and the UEFA’s discontinuation of foreigner limitations in a given squad had already created a seller’s market. Real Madrid had already begun their Galacticos ways (aka, “fill the team with stars at every position”) and had just shocked England by plucking David Beckham from Manchester United. Salaries were already increasing, and the bar for how much money you needed to compete at a high level was already rising.
Still, Abramovich changed the way spending worked in England, and the ownership model he introduced — one part limitless spending, one part potential sportswashing enterprise — hastened shifts that were already underway and proved you could buy your way into Europe’s ruling class. His impending sale of Chelsea — forced after being sanctioned by the British government for perceived ties to the Kremlin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — brings about the end of an immensely important era and creates an opportunity to reflect on what the game has become over the past two decades.
Let’s hop into the time machine and visit where European soccer was in July 2003.
To see how much the world has (or hasn’t) changed, let’s first go back in time to survey the general landscape of the sport as it stood when Abramovich took over.
In England, this was Sir Alex Ferguson’s heyday. His Manchester United had won eight of the previous 11 Premier League titles, plus the Champions League in 1999. They were attempting to fend off a huge challenge from Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, who had won the league in 1998 and 2002 and would field their famous Invincibles squad in 2003-04, but there was no question as to who was the top dog at the time.
In the summer of 2003, the Red Devils made a fierce run at acquiring Paris Saint-Germain’s Ronaldinho, too, before he chose Barcelona at the last second and United moved on to an eventual plan B: a teenager from Sporting CP named Cristiano Ronaldo. The top five finishers in the Premier League in 2002-03 were United, Arsenal, Newcastle United, Chelsea and Liverpool.
This was Chelsea’s seventh straight season finishing from third to sixth, but the club was creaking under serious debt issues with chairman Ken Bates when Abramovich swooped in. He immediately made waves, too, first by attempting to acquire both Ferguson and Arsenal star Thierry Henry, then by eventually spending more than £100 million on an array of stars like Real Madrid’s Claude Makelele, Internazionale’s Hernan Crespo, Manchester United’s Juan Sebastian Veron and Blackburn’s Damien Duff. The next year, he spent another £80m on the likes of Marseille’s Didier Drogba, FC Porto’s Ricardo Carvalho, PSV Eindhoven’s Arjen Robben and Stade Rennes’ Petr Cech. (He also brought in a manager by the name of Jose Mourinho.)
Results followed immediately: Chelsea would finish in the top two in each of the next five seasons.
Elsewhere, Manchester City were still five years away from their purchase by the Abu Dhabi United Group and just one year removed from a residency in the second division. Tottenham Hotspur, two years into Daniel Levy’s run as chairman, finished 10th, while Leeds United, Champions League semifinalists just two years earlier, fell to 15th amid a financial crisis that would pull them down to the second division in 2004 and the third in 2007.
Real Madrid’s Galacticos won their second Spanish title in three years in 2003, but this was an odd time atop Spanish football. Deportivo La Coruna won the league in 2000, and Valencia, Champions League finalists in both 2000 and 2001, won the league in 2002 and would do so again in 2004.
Real Madrid won the league with 78 points in 2002-03. It was the third time in a four-year span that the LaLiga champions failed to top 80 points. From 2010 to 2018, the winner averaged 95.1 points. By the way, Barcelona finished sixth this season, and Atletico Madrid finished 12th in their first season back from the second division.
After slipping to third place in 2001-02, Bayern Munich charged back to win their fourth Bundesliga title in five seasons, topping second-place VfB Stuttgart by 16 points and 2002 champions Borussia Dortmund by 17. Hamburg and Hertha Berlin rounded out the top five.
A second Munich club, 1860 Munich, finished 10th — their sixth top-10 finish in eight seasons — but would drop to the second division in 2004. They haven’t made it back up since. Meanwhile, Bayer Leverkusen, just one season removed from a rousing run to the Champions League final, finished 15th, four points from relegation.
Italy’s hierarchy was rather predictable in 2003, with Juventus winning the Scudetto by seven points over Inter and 11 over AC Milan. Lazio finished fourth while fending off a financial crisis, and Parma was fifth, their 10th top-five finish in 11 years. Parma had won the UEFA Cup in both 1995 and 1999 and would finish fifth again in 2004 before falling into administration due to the financial collapse of their sponsor, Parmalat.
In France, Lyon won a tight race by one point over AS Monaco, two over Marseille and four over Bordeaux and Sochaux. This was Lyon’s second of seven straight league titles, while Paris Saint-Germain, still eight years away from their purchase by Qatar Sports Investments, finished 11th.
The 2002-03 Champions League featured plenty of heavyweights making big runs. After a pair of group stages, the quarterfinals were Real Madrid (fourth in the year-end ratings at EloFootball.com) vs. Manchester United (first), Juventus (fifth) vs. Barcelona (sixth), Milan (eighth) vs. Ajax Amsterdam (17th) and Inter Milan (11th) vs. Valencia (19th), who had upset Arsenal (second) in the final match of the second group stage. (Bayern Munich, third per EloFootball, had bombed out in the first group stage.)
AC Milan rode to the Champions League title with a run of heart-stopping results: They beat Ajax in the quarterfinals with Jon Dahl Tomasson’s tap-in of a Filippo Inzaghi lob in stoppage time; they beat derby rival Inter on away goals in the semis; and they topped favoured Juventus in penalties after a 0-0 title-game draw.
What’s actually changed since 2003?
Historic powers playing for the Champions League title? Two huge English clubs leading the way in the EloFootball rankings, alongside Bayern (who romped to the Bundesliga title with Champions League play off their plate), Real Madrid, Juve and Barcelona? Aside from a few obvious exceptions — hello, UEFA Cup finalists Celtic (seventh in the EloFootball rankings) — this feels pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Still, while acknowledging that the sport was already trending toward oligarchy before Abramovich and a couple of nation-states got involved, it’s clear to see a few changes that were at least hastened, especially in England, by the addition of Abramovich and eventually Abu Dhabi and QSI to the soccer universe.
Here’s the current EloFootball top 15. For historical perspective, I pulled average ratings from 1979 to 2003 (the 25 seasons pre-Abramovich), and each team’s ranking on that list is in parentheses.
1. Liverpool (second)
2. Bayern Munich (first)
3. Manchester City (68th)
4. Chelsea (39th)
5. Real Madrid (fourth)
6T. Barcelona (sixth)
6T. Inter Milan (11th)
8. Ajax (28th)
9. Juventus (fifth)
10. PSG (56th)
11. Arsenal (seventh)
12. Atletico Madrid (24th)
13. AC Milan (ninth)
14T. Manchester United (third)
14T. Porto (eighth)
Although some of the clubs on this list have battled ups and downs through the years, 10 of the current top 15 were also among the top 15 clubs in Europe before Abramovich arrived on the scene, while Atletico and Ajax were pretty close. The three others on the current list kept spending and spending until they were able to join the club. Manchester City, Chelsea and PSG had combined for five top-division titles in their respective histories to that point, but have since won 17, mostly in the past 11 years, along with two Champions League titles (both for Chelsea) and three more finals appearances.
One more way these teams (and their spending) have helped to change the top of the sport: The best teams are far more dominant than they used to be.
To some degree, it appears they have become too big to fail. Barcelona are dealing with a massive debt issue and lost Lionel Messi because of it, but the storied club has fallen only to third (and rising) in LaLiga. A down year for Bayern no longer means finishing third in the Bundesliga or failing in the Champions League group stage; now it means merely winning the league by a few points and reaching only the UCL quarterfinals.
You can still find light-heavyweight clubs making Champions League runs here and there. RB Leipzig, powered by Red Bull money — does this make them more of a cruiserweight than light heavyweight? — reached the semifinals in 2020 alongside Lyon, while Atalanta reached the quarterfinals. Sevilla made the quarterfinals in 2018 and took down plenty of big names while winning four Europa Leagues in eight years, and Villarreal won Europa last year and have made the Champions League quarterfinals this season.
But even if upsets still happen, there are fewer than there used to be, both in league and continental play.
Can soccer reel itself in? Or will it become an even more closed club?
With a particularly jaded eye, you could make the case that without Abramovich-level oligarchs, the top of the sport will become even more of a closed club than before. After all, the only new names among the ruling class are the ones that bought their way in. As fun as it is to take a lower-level club and turn it into a European power on Football Manager or FIFA, the world has rarely been conducive to such a thing and certainly isn’t now.
This does appear to be a looking-in-the-mirror moment for the sport as a whole. The brief rise and fall of the European Super League in 2021 made the sport’s cracks as clear as they’ve ever been. The venture was remarkably tone-deaf considering the power the richest clubs in Europe clearly already hold, but it also illustrated different types of financial strain being suffered at different levels of the sport — even the top level, as elite clubs outside of England struggle with financial losses from the COVID era and attempt to figure out how to compete with a Premier League dominating the continent in both spending and revenue.
UEFA’s attempt at redesigning Financial Fair Play appears it won’t have as much bite as some preferred – it seems to be gravitating more toward limiting spending as a percentage of a team’s overall revenue instead of a rock-hard spending cap. And while some have suggested the Premier League look at the Abramovich sanctions as a reason to revisit the standards for who can or cannot own clubs, a simple solution appears unrealistic, especially with the recent approval of Newcastle’s purchase. We’re seeing the rise of ownership groups that treat clubs as assets in a portfolio, creating expectations for a team based as much around profit and commercial success as trophies. That can drive a wedge both between clubs and fans and between richer clubs and everyone else.
The sport might be looking in the mirror, but it could very well decide it can’t really change all that much. We will continue to see certain rich clubs flounder, and we will see light heavyweight clubs make stirring title or tournament runs. (And even among the best and richest clubs, players with unique skill sets and personalities will continue making the game worth watching.) But for sometimes better and often worse, there’s no going back to the pre-Champions League or pre-Abramovich days.