‘Totally uncharted territory’: Chelsea facing harsh reality of life after Roman Abramovich

The sanctions against the owner not only impact the here and now of the football club but its future too

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 11 March 2022 12:49
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Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich sanctioned by UK government amid Russian oligarch crackdown

Among the Chelsea players, there was dark humour about the news, and more earnest questions about what next and what it all means.

The first thing that should be said is that there is a seriousness here way beyond football. The notification of Roman Abramovich’s sanctioning relayed the following, among a lengthy piece of information that was among the very longest of those concerning the 204 individuals named:

“Abramovich is associated with a person who is/has been involved in destabilising Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin, with whom Abramovich has had a close relationship for decades.”

This was a fact that media sought to publish and explore for years, but were shackled by the billionaire’s heavy use of litigation.

As long ago as 2006, the book The Billionaire from Nowhere by Dominic Midgley and Chris Hutchins reported the following words of radio owner Alexei Venediktov, who recounted an exchange with Abramovich.

“At my last meeting with him, he said to me, ‘Alexei, I promise you I am not interested in politics.’ So I reminded him how in 1999 he had helped form the cabinet, how all the candidates for ministerial positions in Putin’s government had had to go one-by-one into an office to see him. He said, ‘That didn’t happen.’ I said, it did, because I was in the Kremlin that day and saw it with my own eyes. ‘Oh,’ he said, laughing, ‘those were just friendly conversations.’

“I respect him a lot,” Abramovich said in a 1999 interview with the media arm of Gazprom. “Putin is an independent figure. He knows in which direction to lead the country . . . in my opinion, everything that Putin does, he does almost without making any mistakes.”

All of this is now in the open. It undeniably changed the perspective of the last 19 years of Chelsea success, which have a very different sheen. There is an asterisk beside every trophy, at least morally.

A more serious consequence is that it also leaves an uncertain future for over 1,000 people who work at the club.

“We’re talking about all the casual staff who maybe work one day every two weeks and they rely on this additional money,” says Dan Silver of the Chelsea Supporters Trust. “It can put food on the table. There are so many loose strands about the sanctions in place, we want a very, very quick resolution on this from the government to make sure the future of these people is not jeopardised. The footballers will be fine, they’ll get other contracts. It’s the people that rely on the club; hopefully there’s going to be a bit more licence on the sanctions.”

Right now, nothing is off the table. One thing we know for certain is that the club and the landscape of the game have been irrevocably changed. “It’s unprecedented,” one source said. “Totally uncharted territory.”

It is quite a lesson in how precarious football has made itself. Just a few weeks ago, Chelsea were one of the game’s few superclubs, financially insulated from the effects of the pandemic and even set to improve their position from it. That position is now totally up in the air, as the club lives from day to day in terms of finances. Revenue streams have been cut off. Doubt is growing over how long they can pay the bills.

Happy birthday Chelsea. The notification of Abramovich’s sanction coincided with the 117th anniversary of the club’s foundation.

Many Chelsea fans will soon not be allowed to watch the club play

Any fears that this could lead to Chelsea’s death are significantly overstated. It will only be the end of the Chelsea we’ve come to know. There is absolutely no political will for a social institution like this to go to the wall, or for fans to suffer, particularly when so many supporters are in swing constituencies. Solutions will be found.

The special licence issued to Chelsea so they can still run as a football club does not currently allow the sale, but the government would be willing to allow a special dispensation.

No 10 has already announced that it is open to the sale of the club, and are talking to those running the club, but stressed that in “no way” could the proceeds benefit Abramovich.

It may well benefit some of the more opportunistic bidders, as they don’t have the Russian-born billionaire setting so high a price. Parties remain interested, including the Reuben brothers. They are seen as far more realistic than Nick Candy, who isn’t believed to have the money, but the Reubens would have to sell their stake in Newcastle United.

It is quite the timing that Eddie Howe’s side are the next team Chelsea play at home on Sunday. This whole situation will bring renewed focus on ownership, which is all the more pointed for Newcastle and Manchester City, given Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are positioning themselves so close to Russia. That’s modern football.

There was another stark sentence in the statement by the prime minister’s official spokesperson when discussing the possibility of a government-sanctioned sale. “These measures are obviously designed to punish Putin and ensure any revenue generated cannot make its way through to the Russian war machine.”

The government are also conscious of the effect on the football pyramid, and there may well be ripple effects there. The legalities could take as long as three months, but there is a time pressure.

Chelsea have had a series of revenue streams cut off, which means they could well go into administration very soon.

A statement from the club said they are currently trying to renegotiate the terms of the special licence, with sources maintaining that this is to allow some income so they can operate as normal. With only £20,000 allowed for expenses on away games under the stipulations, many in football even doubted whether that would be enough to cover next week’s Champions League trip to somewhere as close as Lille.

This is the level we are talking about.

“The Chelsea situation is alarming on several levels,” says Dr Rob Wilson, expert on football economics from Sheffield Hallam University. “In the simplest terms, freezing the owners’ assets prevents the club from being supported on an ongoing basis. This could lead to the club being placed into administration if unable to pay its debts as they fall due.”

Many players were already considering their futures. All of those out of contract, and particularly Antonio Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen, are said to have made up their minds. Many will not want to stick around for any uncertainty.

If the current stipulations persist, we may even have a situation where Chelsea beat Middlesbrough in the FA Cup quarter-finals, and Wembley is half-empty for the semi-final because ticket sales are handled through the club. Chelsea are currently only allowed to let season-ticket holders attend home games.

That very prospect should put further focus on Tracey Crouch’s fan review, which already seems woefully out of date. Its inability to properly tackle club ownership looks so short-sighted. That will now be reassessed. The Independent has also been told that Crouch has been in touch with the Supporters Trust, but has so far felt “reactive”.

The game needs to get proactive on all this, to re-assess where it’s going, and the path it’s been on.

This is why ownership matters. This is why it is wrong to allow states to own clubs. This is the mess football has got itself into. Chelsea are caught right up.

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