LONDON: The decision to sanction Roman Abramovich and freeze his assets has left Chelsea to continue playing only with the approval of the British government under special conditions.
The 55-year-old Abramovich is among seven wealthy Russians punished by Boris Johnson's administration on Thursday over their close links to the Kremlin, with Russia's war on Ukraine into a third week.
The sanctioning of Abramovich came on Chelsea's 117th birthday.
How important is Abramovich to Chelsea?
Abramovich transformed Chelsea after stunning English football in 2003 by launching the most expensive takeover of an English club.
“I just saw this incredible game and that I wanted to be a part of that in one way or another,” Abramovich said in a rare interview with Forbes last year.
The flow of investment — before European football introduced Financial Fair Play spending control rules — quickly allowed an upgrade of the squad that produced a first English championship title in 50 years in 2005.
Abramovich was the first of the mega-rich owners to enter English football, starting a trend that has continued with Manchester City benefiting from Abu Dhabi investment since 2008 and Newcastle tapping into Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund since last year.
Chelsea has won five Premier League titles under Abramovich along with two Champions League titles, the latest last year. Victory in the Club World Cup last month completed the set of major honors.
The success has been funded by around 1.5 billion pounds ($2 billion) of loans to the club that Abramovich said he didn't want repaid when putting the club up for sale last week.
Why sanction Abramovich?
Abramovich has used legal means to try to publicly distance himself from benefiting from an association with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The British government thinks otherwise, saying Abramovich has obtained “a financial benefit or other material benefit from Putin and the government of Russia," including tax breaks, the sale of shares at favorable rates, and contracts in the buildup to Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup.
Abramovich “is or has been involved in destabilizing Ukraine” via Evraz, a steel manufacturing and mining company which he effectively controls and has potentially supplied the Russia military, the government said.
His fortune was made in oil and aluminium following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2005, Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom paid $13 billion for the Sibneft oil company controlled by Abramovich. It allowed Putin’s Kremlin to recapture state influence in the lucrative energy industry.
What is the impact on Chealsea?
The sanctions could have immediately forced Chelsea to stop running as a business, and preventing its teams from completing their seasons. Instead, a special license has been issued to allow it to continue operating, subject to heavy restrictions.
Only fans already with tickets — mainly season ticket holders — can attend matches, shutting out away fans from games. The club's shop had to close on Thursday morning. Staff at the hotel built onto Stamford Bridge said they were under orders to no longer accept new reservations or sell food and drink.
Only 500,000 pounds ($657,000) can be spent on staging each match at Stamford Bridge, including on security and catering. A maximum of 20,000 pounds can be spent on travel to matches. Chelsea plays in France at Lille in the Champions League next week.
Player recruitment is also prohibited under the terms of the government license that runs through May 31. There are players with contracts expiring at the end of the season in June and the sanctions create uncertainty over whether Cesar Azpilicueta, Toni Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen could be offered new deals.
Can Chelsea still be sold?
As calls grew in the British parliament for Abramovich to be sanctioned, Chelsea was put up for sale.
“I have instructed my team to set up a charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale will be donated,” Abramovich said. “The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine."
It gave the impression of being an entity that Abramovich would be involved with. The foundation could have benefited Russian victims, too.
Chelsea sought potential bidders to register their interest by next week. But now the government has oversight of the process.
“While the current license does not permit the sale of the club at this time, the government is open to a sale of the club and would consider an application for a new license to allow for a sale,” the government said. “Proceeds from any sale could not go to the sanctioned individual while he is subject to sanctions.”