Roman Abramovich sent shockwaves around the world of football on Saturday night by announcing he was handing the ‘stewardship and care of Chelsea FC’ to the trustees of the club’s charitable foundation.
Amid fears the billionaire could face stringent sanctions from the Government, the surprising move is an attempt to protect Chelsea from continued links to the wider situation of Russia’s war with Ukraine.
Abramovich, 55, who is worth £10billion and bought the club from Ken Bates in summer 2003, has come under renewed scrutiny after Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, with the revelation last week that in 2019 the Home Office linked the billionaire to the Russian state as well as ‘corrupt activity and practices’.
There were initially fears among fans that Abramovich was relinquishing his ownership and walking away. That would have raised serious questions about the future of the club, which owes Abramovich about £1.5bn in loans to Chelsea’s parent company, Fordstam Ltd, which he also owns.
But The Mail on Sunday can reveal that Abramovich remains the owner and Saturday night’s announcement is ‘symbolic’ rather than technical. Nothing significant is going to change at the club, on or off the pitch, aside from Abramovich ‘stepping back’ to let the charity trustees be nominally in charge.
The Russian has a reputation — unfairly in his view — as being a close associate of Putin. The British Government has blacklisted a number of Putin allies, making them subject to sanctions and asset freezing. For now those do not include Abramovich, although Whitehall sources say this is subject to constant review.
The private hope of Abramovich in distancing himself from Chelsea, who take on Liverpool in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final, is that the club will not be targeted for abuse by those who link him to Putin, and therefore to the war in Ukraine.
Equally he accepts that should the Government decide to come after him, this move will not stop them seizing assets, including Chelsea.
Nothing significant will change at Chelsea despite Roman Abramovich’s statement
Abramovich (left) hopes Chelsea won’t be targeted for abuse by those who link him to Russian president Vladimir Putin (right)
His statement in full said: ‘During my nearly 20-year ownership of Chelsea FC, I have always viewed my role as a custodian of the club, whose job it is ensuring we are as successful as we can be today, as well as build for the future, while also playing a positive role in our communities.
‘I have always taken decisions with the club’s best interest at heart. I remain committed to these values. That is why I am today giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC.
‘I believe that currently they are in the best position to look after the interests of the club, players, staff, and fans.’
Abramovich accepts that if the Government come after him the distancing wouldn’t stop them seizing assets such as Chelsea
If this were to be paraphrased to its core meaning, it would have read: ‘I remain Chelsea’s owner but I’m distancing myself for now from day-to-day control.’
Chelsea have been transformed under Abramovich’s time in control. Before he arrived, they had won one top-flight English title in their history, in 1955. Under his ownership they have added five Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues, two Europa Leagues, five FA Cups and three League Cups, for a total of 17 major trophies in 18 completed seasons.
The silverware has come at a massive price, with average net transfer spending of £68.2m per year for 19 years (adjusted for inflation to 2022 prices) and average wage spending of £236m per year. But few Chelsea fans will be complaining.
Chelsea have been transformed during Abramovich’s time in charge of the club
Abramovich has not attended any Chelsea game in England since a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge in November 2021 and that was his first game at the stadium for three years.
Political controversy continues to swirl around Abramovich and his residency status
Political controversy continues to swirl around him, particularly his residency status, and last week there were calls by MPs in the House of Commons for him to be deprived of his ownership of Chelsea as an oligarch with links to Putin.
Abramovich, however, feels aggrieved the club and its players and fans are the subject of negative attention in the current political climate.
Nothing will change in terms of the daily workings of Chelsea as a result of the statement.
Marina Granovskaia will remain in control of football operations, just as chairman Bruce Buck will retain his same duties and German Thomas Tuchel will continue to deal with both of them as the first team manager.
The trustees in question are Buck, sports lawyer John Devine, Chelsea women’s manager Emma Hayes, former Kick It Out CEO Piara Powar, former Sports Minister and Chelsea fan Hugh Robertson and the club’s finance director Paul Ramos.