ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Roman Abramovich clapped his hands together just once when the moment came. Sat with his legs crossed in the VIP area of the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, the Chelsea owner high-fived with his assistant as a smile broke out across his face, briefly visible with his black mask lowered after taking a sip of still water.
The value of a Club World Cup triumph might be questioned more robustly in Europe than the rest of the world, but the 2-1 victory over Palmeiras in Saturday’s final crowns the Blues as the best club side in the world. It is a defining night in a 19-year journey for Abramovich, who bought Chelsea in 2003 with the express aim of achieving world domination.
The manner in which they reached the pinnacle across these 120 minutes, securing the 21st trophy of his reign, is emblematic of his lavishly funded approach: two of the three most expensive signings in Chelsea’s history scored the goals, £97.5 million striker Romelu Lukaku with a towering header and £71m midfielder Kai Havertz with a 117th-minute penalty either side of Raphael Veiga’s spot kick that forced extra-time.
Abramovich quickly made his way to the pitch, flanked by executive director Marina Granovskaia. The pair embraced head coach Thomas Tuchel, who flew in little more than 24 hours earlier to help deliver this latest success, before engaging in lengthy conversation with technical and performance director Petr Cech.
Cech was a player when Chelsea lost their only previous final in this competition, a decade ago to Corinthians, and he addressed the squad here in Abu Dhabi before one training session earlier this week, outlining why this was an opportunity to be seized.
In 2012, Cech felt Chelsea were underprepared in the belief other prizes were more important and, in any case, they felt they would win it at one time or another given how good they had become. Cech enjoyed a glorious career but never got another shot at a Club World Cup.
Only five European clubs have won every major trophy in existence: Juventus, Ajax, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and now Chelsea. This is the exalted company Abramovich expects to keep, the mission statement that has informed a ruthless hire-and-fire culture of managers and an investment of more than £2 billion.
“We’ve won it all,” the Chelsea fans often sing. Now that really is true.
He remained in dialogue with Cech as the Chelsea squad gathered centre stage and captain Cesar Azpilicueta lifted the trophy. A few minutes later, the Russian billionaire stood slightly removed from everyone, arms behind his back as he took in the celebrations before Cech rejoined him.
That particular duo — along with former stalwarts John Terry and Didier Drogba, also in attendance — know the trials and tribulations Chelsea have endured in the ascent to the summit of the game better than anyone. They will also know the difficulty of staying there.
Those who believe this competition occupies the curious position of being technically the highest honour on offer but simultaneously only a footnote to their season in the context of Premier League and Champions League pursuits will have seen enough to concern them about the challenges that lie ahead.
Palmeiras were tricky opponents, not least because of the 15,000-strong throng that turned this particular corner of Abu Dhabi into something resembling a Sao Paulo suburb, a sea of green and white visible in large sections of all four sides of this stadium. The noise, even an hour before kickoff, was deafening and continued into the game, provided a defiant soundtrack to their team’s contain-and-counter game plan, willingly ceding territory and possession in an attempt to expose Chelsea on the break.
It almost worked. Dudu wasted more than one presentable counterattacking situation and Chelsea laboured to create much, cumbersome and often careless with the ball.
Tuchel, who missed Wednesday’s semifinal win over Al Hilal while he self-isolated in London following a positive COVID-19 test, made some surprising changes, dropping Jorginho and Hakim Ziyech while restoring Mason Mount to the starting XI. Edouard Mendy’s return was harsh on Kepa Arrizabalaga but understandable given the form of the freshly crowned Africa Cup of Nations champion.
Mount barely lasted half an hour as he appeared to struggle with a recurrence of the ankle injury that has sidelined him of late, with Christian Pulisic introduced ahead of Ziyech to replace him. The changes seemed to contribute to a disjointed display, but one alteration, Callum Hudson-Odoi for Marcus Alonso, paid off when the England international created the opening goal from a left-wing-back position. Lukaku met Hudson-Odoi’s 55th-minute cross with a towering header, a superb leap worthy of the occasion and his salary.
VAR was Chelsea’s enemy and then later their friend. In the 64th minute, Thiago Silva was adjudged on review to have handled in the box as he challenged Gustavo Gomez. Raphael Veiga slotted home the ensuing penalty.
What followed was, frankly, a bit of a mess and the clearest indication that Tuchel still has work to do to discover how to make Chelsea more potent against teams willing to defend to the extent Palmeiras did here.
There were at least two changes of system, Lukaku and Hudson-Odoi were withdrawn when the scores were level and both were enjoying encouraging evenings and Pulisic was asked to play left-wing-back. Pulisic and Ziyech were seen at one point arguing with each other as they pointed in various directions. The confusion appeared obvious as Chelsea struggled to reassert themselves and the game appeared certain to drift toward a penalty shootout.
Instead, three minutes from the end of extra-time, a shot by Azpilicueta struck Palmeiras defender Luan on his arm and Australian referee Chris Beath took a second look before awarding a penalty.
Cleverly, Azpilicueta soaked up the attempts by several Palmeiras players to put him off as he held the ball over the spot before handing it to Havertz. The man who scored the winning goal in last May’s Champions League final against Manchester City this time delivered the world crown, sending goalkeeper Weverton the wrong way.
Luan’s misery was complete when he was sent off after another VAR review for hacking down Havertz as he burst through, but Palmeiras’ race was already run. As the referee mulled over that decision, Abramovich signaled to one of the two minders stationed behind his seat that he wanted to go down to the pitch at full-time.
Abramovich is a rare visitor to Stamford Bridge these days, ever since withdrawing his visa application amid a diplomatic row between England and Russia in 2018. But he was in Porto to see his team win the Champions League and he was never going to miss this.
Tuchel knows, however, what comes next is never far from the owner’s mind.