The government of the United Kingdom announced this morning that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch who was an advisor to and remains close with Vladimir Putin, has been personally sanctioned. The announcement of these sanctions has suddenly thrust Chelsea, Abramovich’s most prized asset and one of the most famous soccer clubs in the entire world, into a strange and precarious position.
The upshot of these sanctions is that Chelsea is now effectively an asset of the U.K. government. Because Abramovich still owns the team, the freezing of his assets could have prevented Chelsea from operating entirely. But the government has issued a special license to the club that will allow it to go through its day-to-day operations while also being restricted from certain activities. The government released a fact sheet laying out exactly how these sanctions will affect the club’s operations. As of right now, Chelsea can:
- Travel to and host games, and pay reasonable travel and logistical costs associated with those games.
- Pay wages to all players, coaches, and staff members.
- Complete any payments related to loans and sales of players that were agreed to before March 10.
- Continue to collect its share of Premier League broadcasting rights fees.
What Chelsea cannot do is:
- Sell any additional tickets, though season ticket holders and fans who have already purchased tickets to upcoming games will be allowed to attend those games.
- Sell any merchandise.
Of course, the big question that the U.K.’s fact sheet is not explicit in answering is whether Chelsea can still be sold. The Telegraph’s Matt Law is reporting that Chelsea can still be sold, but that in order for any sale to go through, the U.K. would have to issue an additional license allowing the transaction.
When Abramovich officially put Chelsea up for sale a week ago, it was reasonable to assume that he did so with the blessing and perhaps even guidance of the U.K. government. Getting Chelsea out of Abramovich’s hands as quickly and quietly as possible looked to be the best course of action for all parties, and so it made some sense that they would work together to bring about that desired conclusion. But now, in light of today’s sanctions, it seems clear that Abramovich put the club up for sale because he was trying to beat a deadline. Perhaps he realized that these sanctions were eventually coming, and that his only chance to punt Chelsea to a new owner and come out of the process with some amount of the sale proceeds in his pocket was to get everything wrapped up before the government could initiate sanctions. He obviously failed to meet that deadline, and now the situation is much messier than it was before. At this point, Abramovich essentially has two options: 1) he can still go forward with trying to sell the club, but with the understanding that the U.K. government will have final say over all aspects of the sale, including where the proceeds ultimately end up (hint: not in Roman Abramovich’s bank account), or 2) he can decide to just hang onto Chelsea and allow the club to continue existing as a half-frozen asset, which will surely put the club in an increasingly fraught position as time goes on.
That’s not much of a choice, and what happens next will likely depend on whether Abramovich is willing to accept his position, or if he suddenly has found an appetite for brinksmanship. Either way, Chelsea’s ultimate fate, which has recently been so determined by the power of Abramovich’s billions, has never been more unclear.