When Chelsea co-owner Behdad Eghbali made the statement that in general football clubs weren’t well-managed, he was strongly criticised. The American private equity businessman was coming from a position whereby the Blues were struggling in mid-table having spent lavishly in the transfer window and very little that the new owners had done had paid off.
Skip forward 11 months and on the face of it, not a lot has changed. The club are still not where they want to be and the 10th place standing is an embarrassment for the riches thrown at new players – even with a sizeable return from sales as well. There is an injury issue that continues to thwart plans, just as it did in December 2022, and the manager is relatively new to the team as well.
What has changed is nearly everything else. Directors, physios, backroom staff, more than half of the playing squad, stadium features, media team, kit, sponsors and all the granular details as well. It is in this week of all weeks though, not just the international break, that Eghbali’s statement here is most important.
Speaking at SporticoLive’s “Invest in Sports” Summit he explained the decision-making process behind getting into European sports and what the plans were for taking the Blues forward. Along with former president Guggenheim Partners and Eldridge Industries chair Todd Boehly, the consortium took over at Stamford Bridge in May 2022 with ideas to modernise the successful English team of the past two decades.
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“We thought Chelsea was a good beachhead, it was frankly an asset, a business that was not terribly well managed on the football side, sporting side or promotional side, so meaningful opportunity at the club and we’ll get to it for us, who needed the beachhead to then look at multi clubs,” Eghbali explained.
It was business talk digested by a lot of football fans less interested in the monetary side and more keen to try and assert a presence back at the top of the Premier League. It was widely mocked, as has been plenty that the new owners have done, but now stands to a point whereby there is once again more context to add.
Not only have the owners come in to try and change the long-term planning at the club, appointing specific recruitment directors and reshuffling the commercial, marketing and board-level figures involved as well, they have taken a strong stance on finances. In one way they have spent ludicrously, committing to potential payments of over £1billion on new players in just three windows, but the wage bill has been massively reduced and the squad for Mauricio Pochettino cleared up.
Whether it is right or wrong, better or worse is largely beside the point. What they have also done is to try and establish a better financial grasp of things. With Eghbali the co-founder of one of USA’s leading private equity firms, Clearlake Capital, there is a strong grounding in this market. Boehly, the public-facing member of the consortium, has worked wonders at LA Dodgers in baseball and also has a stake in the LA Lakers basketball side.
This balance provides promise for what is to come at Chelsea but in a week that they have been put in the same bracket as those under threat of severe Premier League punishment, it is understandably not top of the news list. After Everton were deducted 10 points for their near £20million overstep of profit and sustainability rules across three years – five seasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic impact on professional football – Chelsea’s name has cropped up.
Manchester City have 115 looming charges over their heads for longer-term alleged misdeeds between 2008 and 2018, something that has sparked theories of relegations and even larger penalties if found guilty or one or any of these breaches. Chelsea are yet to be charged but their history works against them.
The club have already had a transfer ban in the past five years after FIFA imposed a sanction due to their methods of signing young players and the way that Roman Abramovich ran the club is clear in the minds of many. The Russian consistently spent more than other clubs, writing it off as debt – one that he eventually wavered when selling the club nearly 18 monts ago.
This caused unrest across the league as his team went on to win five league titles between 2003 and 2017, also becoming champions of Europe for the second time under his watch in 2021 but doing it via unorthodox means. His short-term ruthlessness mixed with brazen use of money was the first of its kind in the world.
Now questions are being asked of just how he ran the club and the effects of that on the current structure. The current owners have already settled on a payment to UEFA over incomplete financial records, something that impacts them but comes from the actions of others, meanwhile allegations have been made in the Telegraph and Guardian of murky transactions involving Abramovich.
These relate to offshore accounts and packets of money sent to those involved in transfers for Willian and Samuel Eto’o as well as Eden Hazard’s agent and one of Antonio Conte’s advisors. With FIFA, UEFA and Premier League punishments now the talk of town it is only understandable that there is concern for what may follow.
It is worth noting that the club are not yet under investigation from any of the governing bodies but that the name is still being used alongside these potential sporting punishments – which includes huge fines, relegation and season-altering points deductions. It is largely a case of putting two and two together but without much substance at this stage.
There are also worries about what may come from the club’s spending in the past year or so but that has so far come to nothing in terms of genuine charges.
However, it does point towards there being truth in Eghbali’s statement that the club wasn’t being run particularly well. Even at the height of Abramovich’s time there was a lack of total efficiency given the money spent compared to rivals. That rarely matters to supporters though with trophies on the pitch being valued above pretty much everything else.
As football has changed Chelsea were left behind though and it is startling just how far off they fell in the period between 2016 and 2022 despite winning a one-off league title in 2017 and being a consistent cup menace. Compared to the clubs that had implemented a true sporting structure to work with the Blues were finishing further and further behind – though one of the teams moving ahead was City, clouded by their charges now.
That being said, there was a time whereby Chelsea had little restraint before UEFA’s financial fair play (FFP) rules were brought in and Abramovich never had close to the level of sustained success that City have had under Pep Guardiola. These are tough comparisons to draw due to the nature of Guardiola the Great himself and the financial questions marks remaining, but there is a point to made.
As Chelsea now look to recover and gain on those that have been planning in modern terms for years it is maybe a feather in the cap of Boehly-Clearlake that they were so open about the management of the club in the past. The words will not be popular, especially given the ways that the club have continued to drop off since the ownership change, but there does appear to be an element of truth in what was said.
“They [football clubs] are to some degree public-private partnerships but like anything you’ve got to put a good product on the field,” Eghali continued in his talk last year. “You’ve got to win. You’re content, your asset is that play and I think the opportunity to make it a platform is there. These things are generally not well-managed. They’re not optimised.
“Some of the US ownership, Fenway Group (FSG) with Liverpool or Abu Dhabi model with Man City have done it well but for the most part, these things haven’t been optimised.
“We looked at it and we think European sports is probably 20 years behind US sports in terms of sophistication on the commercial side, and sophistication on the data side.”
Whether or not this is true is yet to be established or proven but if Abramovich’s work was to come back and bite Chelsea in the future it would be fair to say that the owners did give a warning. It may well also mean very little if they do not manage to overcome these facts to get the club back to the top but it certainly explains the view they held last year.