Abramovich selling Chelsea in fallout from Russia's invasion

Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich has confirmed he is trying to sell the Premier League club he turned into an elite trophy-winning machine with his lavish investment

Updated - March 04, 2022 06:48 pm IST

Published - March 03, 2022 11:08 am IST - LONDON

Roman Abramovich. File.

Roman Abramovich. File. | Photo Credit: AP

Faced with the threat of financial sanctions targeting Russians, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich announced Wednesday he is trying to sell the Premier League club that became trophy-winning machine thanks to his lavish investment.

The decision by the billionaire oligarch to sell his most high-profile asset is one of the clearest signs yet that Russia's business elite are feeling the repercussions of President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Owning Chelsea has made Mr. Abramovich a household name in Britain and politicians have been demanding that he be included on the list of wealthy and influential Russians hit with British sanctions because of the war.

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“Please know that this has been an incredibly difficult decision to make, and it pains me to part with the club in this manner,” Mr. Abramovich said in a statement. “However, I do believe this is in the best interest of the club.”

One potential buyer had already gone public to reveal Mr. Abramovich was trying to sell with a price tag of at least $2.5 billion floated. Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss claimed he “received an offer on Tuesday to buy Chelsea from Abramovich” along with three other people.

However, Mr. Abramovich insisted that “the sale of the club will not be fast-tracked but will follow due process.”

Mr. Abramovich said he will not be asking to be repaid 1.5 billion pounds ($2 billion) in loans he has granted the club during 19 years of injecting cash to elevate the team into one of the most successful in Europe. The set of every major trophy was completed last month when Chelsea won the Club World Cup.

“I have instructed my team to set up a charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale will be donated," he said. “The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Abramovich has faced calls to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which he so far has not done.

Parliamentary privilege had been used by Labour Party legislator Chris Bryant to claim in the House of Commons that Mr. Abramovich was already looking to sell London properties, speculating that “he’s terrified of being sanctioned.”

Mr. Abramovich has not commented on any attempts to seize his assets, which grew from the fortune he made in oil and aluminium during the chaotic years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The speed of Mr. Abramovich’s pending exit from Chelsea is striking as he was trying to instigate a plan this past weekend to relinquish some control in order to keep the club under his ownership, announcing plans to shift the “stewardship and care” of the club to its foundation trustees.

“I hope that I will be able to visit Stamford Bridge one last time to say goodbye to all of you in person,” Mr. Abramovich said. “It has been a privilege of a lifetime to be part of Chelsea FC and I am proud of all our joint achievements. Chelsea Football Club and its supporters will always be in my heart.”

Chelsea had won the league title only once — in 1955 — when Mr. Abramovich bought the club in 2003. Helped by a number of expensive signings, the club won the Premier League title two years later and has added four more since then, most recently in 2017.

The haul of 18 trophies in 19 years also includes two Champions League titles and the Club World Cup success he was in Abu Dhabi to witness last month.

His last public visit to a match at Stamford Bridge was last year after also hosting Israeli President Isaac Herzog at the stadium in November.

Mr. Abramovich rarely speaks publicly but did give an interview to Forbes last year, in part explaining the purchase of Chelsea in 2003 for 140 million pounds including 75 million pounds of debt.

“In hindsight, especially with the public profile it would bring me, maybe I would have thought differently about owning a club,” Mr. Abramovich was quoted as telling Forbes. “But, at the time, I just saw this incredible game and that I wanted to be a part of that in one way or another.”

Mr. 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 Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund buying Newcastle last year.

It is unclear how the sale will affect Chelsea's finances. There is a long-term need to revamp Stamford Bridge to generate more income from fans and corporate backers. Chelsea has the smallest and most dated stadium of the Premier League’s most successful clubs, with plans for a rebuild of the 41,000-capacity venue put on hold by Mr. Abramovich in 2018 as British-Russian diplomatic tensions deepened.

Mr. Abramovich has not had a British visa since 2018 when a renewal application was taking longer than usual to go through and was withdrawn. That came at a time when Britain pledged to review the long-term visas of rich Russians in the aftermath of the poisonings of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. Britain blamed Russia for the pair’s exposure to a nerve agent, an allegation Moscow denies.

Mr. Abramovich’s connections to Mr. Putin have been the subject of speculation for years.

In 2012, a High Court judge in London highlighted Mr. Abramovich’s connections to Mr. Putin in a ruling related to a legal battle. Judge Elizabeth Gloster said Mr. Abramovich had “very good relations” and “privileged access” to Mr. Putin though adding he could not “pull the presidential strings.” Mr. Abramovich has denied taking any orders from Mr. Putin.

The ripples of the war also led to the loss of key Russian-linked sponsorship at another Premier League club on Wednesday.

Everton suspended deals with firms owned by Alisher Usmanov, a Russian metals tycoon who has been sanctioned by the European Union. Usmanov’s firms include USM which has the naming rights to the training ground and paid 30 million pounds ($40 million) for the same rights to a new stadium being built in Liverpool.

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