Chelsea sanctions being eased may not be enough to sustain them

Ian King
Graffiti outsidge Stamford Bridge, Chelsea

The sanctions against Chelsea have been eased a little, but it remains daunting for a club whose very existence is still at risk.


On the pitch at least, there was a semblance of normality at Carrow Road on Thursday night. Norwich City’s defence held out against Chelsea for fewer than three minutes and Chelsea ended up with another three points towards playing in next year’s Champions League, further demonstrating the yawning chasm between the Premier League’s haves and have-nots. But for how long are Chelsea going to be among the former of these categories, considering everything that is going on surrounding the club at present?

There’s no question that the club dined out on Roman Abramovich’s largesse for a very long time. Over 19 years, they won the Premier League and FA Cup five times each, the League Cup three times, the Champions League and Europa League twice each and the World Club Cup once. That’s 18 trophies in total. Very close to an average of one every single season for almost two decades.

When you’ve been living that lifestyle on somebody else’s expense account for so long, the idea that you might have to rejoin football’s hoi-polloi might be somewhat upsetting. Whether this excuses chanting Abramovich’s name as Russian tanks built with steel he supplied destroy Ukraine is another question, but the very fact that this happened in the first place was a pretty good example of why wealthy individuals and governments (or their ‘public investment funds’) get involved in sportswashing.

Chelsea fan chants about Abramovich can pay £28m monthly wage

Chelsea supporters aren’t responsible for Abramovich and still less for Russia’s war in Ukraine, but they are liable for their reaction to the events of the last few days and weeks. Those who are continuing to chant his name and those who daubed the outside of Stamford Bridge with graffiti – although it’s worth bearing in mind that we don’t even know for certain that this was carried out by Chelsea supporters – despite repeated requests from the manager not to do so, are demonstrating little more than how corrupting money can be when it comes to ethics.

They’re not unique in this respect. The same goes for Newcastle supporters celebrating their new ownership despite their dreadful record on human rights, killing and dismembering of a journalist and carpet bombing of Yemen. Then there’s those Manchester City fans who became conspiracy theorists in the name of Abu Dhabi. And yes, it does put you in a difficult position if you have any sort of moral compass.

But the protests at all three of these clubs at the time that the sportswashers took over was as close to zero as makes no appreciable difference – and contrary to the prevailing line that ‘everybody’ ignored the issue until a couple of weeks ago, well, that’s a lie. Plenty of people had things to say about Abramovich, just as they did about Abu Dhabi, just as they did over Saudi Arabia. It’s just that no-one, not enough in the media, not at all among the game’s governing bodies and barely even among the clubs’ own support bases, was either listening or wanting to listen.

They say that the first casualty of war is truth and it doesn’t only come about through deliberate misrepresentation. The story that the club’s credit cards had been frozen was initially misreported as their bank account having been frozen. The truth was slightly less alarming, but still troubling. It is completely understandable that the club’s financiers might want to check the sanction situation before continuing to offer any sort to credit facilities to them.

Will Chelsea have the cash in hand to pay the wages of more than a thousand people come the end of the month? Three have already terminated their sponsorship deal with the club. That was worth £40m a year. The transfer window has had padlocks attached to it. Whatever is going to happen to the club needs to happen quickly, because it seems clear that the current situation is untenable.

There has been movement on that front. It is now reported that Abramovich has agreed to a sale, which was one potential hurdle to Chelsea’s security, while the changes to their licence have also been approved by the government. The club argued that they would not be able to pay for enough security, stewarding and catering to keep all sections of Stamford Bridge open during matches if the amount they’re allowed to pay out on match days – which had been capped at £500,000 per match – wasn’t increased; this has been upped to £900,000. The following other amendments were made:

  • Explicit allowances for spending related to youth development, for paying contractors and temporary workers (which will include matchday staff), and for paying benefits for all workers (if said benefits were in place before March 10).
  • Spending on ongoing capital works if the works began before March 10.
  • Paying legal fees, settlements and other such obligations for cases settled before March 10.
  • Collecting rent from tenants and guests at club-owned properties if they were already paying or contracted to pay before March 10.

They appear to have lost their two key arguments: that they need ticket money to remain operational; and that they will be almost literally unable to get to away matches. The limit of £20,000 to spend on those remains and that raises questions regarding whether Chelsea will even be able to fulfil their upcoming Champions League fixture away to Lille. The club’s argument was straightforward. They would barely have been able to afford to get to Norwich for their Premier League match for £20,000, so how on earth would they be able to play away Champions League legs?

How this plays out is anybody’s guess. The government can only be assumed to be wishing to put both of these matters to a stress test and seeing how far the club buckles. As such the best route out of this potential rabbit-warren of questions remains a quick sale. If government involvement is to protect rather than hinder Chelsea, this sale process needs to be expedited rather than delayed. There are understood to be three interested parties.

With their customary grace and elan, the Premier League leapt in this morning with the following statement:

‘Following the imposition of sanctions by the UK Government, the Premier League board has disqualified Roman Abramovich as a director of Chelsea Football Club.

‘The board’s decision does not impact on the club’s ability to train and play its fixtures, as set out under the terms of a licence issued by the Government, which expires on May 31 2022.’

Notwithstanding complaints that all this might have come 19 years too late, there is a striking irony to the Premier League having ‘disqualified Roman Abramovich as a director of Chelsea Football Club’ when Abramovich has never been a director of Chelsea. Rather, he’s the owner of Fordstam, the company that owns Chelsea. He still qualifies for a ban as a ‘person with significant control’, but it says something for the disaster that both corporate ownership structures and football governance have become that the Premier League’s statement should be factually irrelevant.

The alterations to their licence will make a small difference, but it remains difficult to see how Chelsea can continue unless something changes. You simply can’t cut a business adrift like this and expect it to be able to function as one. Still no-one really knows where any of this ends up, but the best-case scenario is a quick sale and a clean start, perhaps in a way that actually represents a more progressive method of running a football club than relying upon the munificence of the man who provided the steel for those Russian tanks. That this is even happening in the first place should surely give us all pause for thought about a better way of doing things.