Unsuspecting Chelsea prospects increasingly find themselves in a place where opportunities may have frozen over. FP explores the state of limbo for loaned players and Chelsea’s dubious partnership with Vitesse.
The vast emptiness of eastern Russia is nearly impossible for humans to comprehend. Siberia is home to 13 million square miles of chilling forests and deserted tundra plains. The most barren area of the entire country is the northeastern autonomous province of Chukotka: a place where each step may evoke a feeling of falling off the face of the earth. Those brave enough to live in the area are met with rampant alcoholism, poor living conditions, and a failing economy still straining from the collapse of Soviet socialism. For nearly a decade, the governor of Chukotka worked to alleviate the pain of the diverse community, 3,000 miles from Moscow, by funnelling billions of his own funds into its infrastructure. That man was Roman Abramovich.
Abramovich is better known as a Russian oligarch and owner of the Champions League-winning Chelsea FC. He has pumped money into the coffers of the London club in a similar fashion to his efforts in Chukotka; Abramovich has helped the club with his investment in better players and updated facilities. One of his most notable projects since purchasing the club in 2003 has been Chelsea’s partnership with a foreign club, Vitesse Arnhem. After the smoky details of a conspicuous business deal clear, what is left is an exploitative system that benefits the clubs at the expense of players’ careers.
Ever since Chelsea have partnered with Arnhem, the world has witnessed countless young players switch West London for East Holland on a temporary basis. In theory, a loan partnership is beneficial for both clubs: the loaners receiving the benefits of young trainees getting game time in a professional league, and the loanees receiving the services of young talents for little to no fee. Unfortunately, the large sample size of players who have made this move provides clear evidence that no matter how much the system is helping the two clubs, it is failing to improve the careers of the players themselves.
One player whose career will be forever shaped by the Chelsea system is currently on loan in Holland. Born in Portsmouth, a young Mason Mount joined Chelsea’s youth academy at the age of six. His talents quickly became apparent to youth coaches at all levels; the midfielder progressed through the London club’s youth system coextensively with that of the England national team. The 18-year-old Mount was on the brink of making the Chelsea first team last year, scoring goals and dominating battles in the Under-21 squad. Perhaps it was planned for years or maybe it was a shock when the Englishman was ordered to pack his bags. The FA Youth Cup winner would be moving to the small Dutch city of Arnhem for a year.
Fast-forward to last month when Vitesse Arnhem hosted a struggling FC Groningen at the GelreDome, the local side’s 25,000-seater stadium (though a typical match brings only 15,000 supporters). A middling side for much of its history, Vitesse have seen improved fortunes ever since a Russian-backed takeover at the turn of the decade injected the club with hope – in the form of funding. The fans who braved the chilly weather were treated to a respectable 2-0 win, with early goals from towering defender Matt Miazga and incisive number ten Mason Mount. It was a result that captured a picture of Vitesse’s seasonal photo album; a fair result, but nothing that would convince you that the Vitas stood a chance of making a title push anytime soon.
The Netherland’s oldest club (that is still professional) hadn’t seen any semblance of major success until last year’s KNVB Cup title, 125 years after its founding. The club’s mixed fortunes over the years – it was a second-division club for much of the 1980s – saw a special relationship develop between it and the hundred-thousand-plus people of Arnhem. Vitesse may not be as glamorous as the big three in the Netherlands, but the soul of the club is knotted tightly with the city itself.
It may seem somewhat strange that this historical club on the western Dutch-German border became subject to mass scrutiny in 2010 when former Georgian footballer Merab Jordania purchased the team. Vitesse had been embroiled in a period of underachievement and financial misfortune for the better part of the new millennium. This made the first foreign purchase of a Dutch club a bit easier to swallow. Arnhem fans simply wanted to achieve more than safety from relegation each season, which was something Jordania promised. However, the purchase came with plenty of strings attached.
The purchase allowed Vitesse to spend their way out of trouble. Ivorian striker Wilfried Bony was brought in from Czech club Sparta Prague for €4 million and Jordania’s connection with Georgian club Dinamo Tbilisi paved the way for a young Guram Kashia to join Vitesse. Bony would go on to lead the Eredivisie scoring charts while Kashia has been captain of the team for over half a decade. Yet, there’s another aspect to the club takeover that has been magnified in the public eye for the better part of ten years: the Chelsea partnership.
The summer that Jordania “purchased” Vitesse, the Arnhem club loaned in three players from the London-based club, in addition to purchasing the aforementioned players. The most notable of these was Nemanja Matic, at the time a young Serbian midfielder struggling to succeed after moving from Slovakia a year earlier. Matic started most games for Vitesse that season and began building his reputation as a midfield controller. Although Chelsea sold him on to Benfica after the loan spell, it was his development in the Netherlands that is often cited as a reason for why he was bought back three years later.
Questions arose about the financial backing of Jordania’s purchase, and there was also a KNVB investigation into the relationship between Vitesse and the Premier League giants. The inquiry absolved the clubs of any wrongdoing, but in 2013 the true source of funding came to the forefront. Russian billionaire Alexander Chigirinsky – a long-time business partner of Roman Abramovich – took over as the club’s owner, a step which was presumably strategized years before.
According to The Guardian, the funding for the initial takeover was provided by another associate of Abramovich. I am no financial expert and have done my best to not bore you with financial details, but it seems that the entire process of the Vitesse purchase was in many ways coordinated by Abramovich himself. Perhaps the relationship between the clubs is a lot closer than the Vitesse fans would care to admit.
After his ousting, Merab Jordania took to the media to criticise the clubs’ partnership. During the 2012-2013 season, Vitesse were performing phenomenally and challenging for a Champions League spot at the midway point of the season. After attempting to sign a player to bolster their second-half push, Jordania says that Chelsea thwarted the deal. “The transfer seemed to be a done deal,” he recalls, “when all of a sudden ‘London’ intervened. We were not allowed to be too strong” (Conn). Therein lies the underlying issue of an otherwise sensible partnership; practically one party [Abramovich and his posse] controls both club entities. They call the shots, and if one decision hurts Vitesse for the good of Chelsea, that decision will be made.
Now, Vitesse supporters have called into question the validity of Jordania’s accusations. In addition, UEFA’s decision to let Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig compete in the same European competition this year bodes well for a potential conflict of interest if Chelsea and Vitesse are ever to face each other. The point of interest still stands, though. And the point is that two clubs with different social and economic standings controlled by one entity always have the potential to disrupt each other’s success.
Since the 2010 purchase, Chelsea have loaned an astonishing 24 players to Arnhem, in addition to selling youth prospect Mukhtar Ali this year on a permanent basis (Transfermarkt). While there is no certain way to measure the effect of these loanees on Vitesse’s performance, their average league position has risen from 11th from 2000-2010 to 7th since the takeover. What is also known is that the talent of Matic, Christain Atsu, Bertrand Traoré, and Dominic Solanke has been very important to Vitesse over the years. Without the Chelsea link-up, Vitesse wouldn’t have even dreamed of attracting players with such promise and skill.
But, from a Chelsea perspective, the problem with these players being sent to Holland is their long-term development. While this may be a testament to Chelsea’s youth policy as a whole, no player sent to Vitesse, bar Nemanja Matic, has broken into the Chelsea first team as a starter. Even the spectacular Solanke was sold to Liverpool before he could get much of a look into Antonio Conte’s squad. It seems that the entire scheme only benefits Chelsea’s finances; players like Solanke and Traoré can be sold on for bigger fees after proving themselves in Arnhem.
The effects of this loan system on Vitesse’s academy must not be overlooked either. While the likes of Marco van Ginkel, Davy Pröpper, and Stijn Schaars have come through the system since the takeover, both the quantity and quality of academy graduates has been quite dismal overall. Vitesse’s training center five miles outside of Arnhem is the best in the region. Combined with the increase of the club’s domestic stature in recent years, it is surprising that more great Dutch youngsters haven’t graduated to the first team.
There are some recent examples of organic squad crafting by the Vitas, but the numbers are low. Kosovan winger Milot Rashica was brought into the system in 2015 for a small fee before developing into a star attacker for the side. Three seasons later, he earned a reputation as the Eredivisie’s best direct winger — his blazing runs down the touchline attracting interest from larger clubs. Werder Bremen paid €7 million for Rashica over the winter window, opening up the channel for 18-year-old youth player Mitchell van Bergen.
Other youth players won’t be as lucky as van Bergen. Julian Lelieveld has been touted as Vitesse’s best youth prospect in years, but the right-back has played second-fiddle to Chelsea loanee Fankaty Dabo this season. Lelieveld has played for Holland’s U20 squad, but at the age of 20 the defender needs first team minutes to develop further. Vitesse risk wasting away talent and long-term gains for short-term, often small, benefits.
On that frosty night in Arnhem when Vitesse beat a lowly Groningen, there must’ve been mixed emotions from all involved. Miazga and Mount, two Chelsea loanees, were the goalscorers who delivered three points to the jubilant supporters. The American defender and English midfielder could each be suggested as Vitesse’s most talented player this season, but everyone and their grandmother knows that they stand little chance of making it into the first team of the club paying their wages (four percent, if we trust past trends). Vitesse Arnhem seems to be no more than a rest station in between career stages, after emerging as Chelsea’s hottest prospect and before embarking on an average career as a castaway.
When Mason Mount scores a goal for his temporary employers, his body movement indicates a kid who is too cool for school. In Holland, he’s the kid who came, saw, and has conquered most opponents in his way. It’s not a walk in the park for the young Englishman, but it’s about as close to one as he will experience throughout the rest of his career.
When I picture Mount standing by the corner flag, awash with endearment from his teammates and passion-filled cheers from the surrounding supporters, it’s hard not to think of a movie scene where the main character’s mind is elsewhere. All the movement and sound around him is blurry, washed out by the true subject at hand. No matter how many goals he scores, Mount is awaiting an uncertain fate when he returns to London this summer. Smiling, but standing on the green surface of a stadium 400 miles away from his hometown with teammates he won’t ever play with again.
The scene is somewhat reminiscent of standing in the open tundra of Chukotka. Even in the summertime, when salmon jump in the rivers and snow gives way to limitless fields of sun-deprived grass, there must be a sense of absolute nothingness. When Roman Abramovich left his post as Chukotka’s governor and looked out the window of his small, rusty jet headed back to London via Moscow, he must have felt a tinge of guilt. Sure, he had poured billions of his own money into improving the region, but there’s so much more work to do.
Russian manager Leonid Slutsky will be taking over the reigns of the team this summer. A respectable tenure at CSKA Moscow and a short stint with the Russian national team has clearly impressed Chigirinsky. Having a fellow Russian managing the squad may lead to an even closer link to Abramovich’s London club. “I think it’s OK to have a cooperation with Chelsea so long as you are still the boss in your own house,” says a Vitesse fan on FourFourTwo. “I have the impression we are.” Be wary, comrade. That cooperation may be morphing into more than a disconnected partnership.
Maybe Abramovich tuned into a Vitesse match this year and saw Mason Mount standing with the same glazed-over look on his face as the people of Chukotka. Forever left to stand adrift in a frozen tundra, working hard to make it but hardly succeeding. Uncertainty for the people of a money-deprived state on the edge of the known world. Uncertainty for the players, forever cast aside in a strategically refined loan system.