Roman Abramovich still owns Chelsea…though that may change

Ian King
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich tried to hand control of the club over to its charitable foundation, but things aren’t quite as easy as that.

 

If it was intended as a deflection, it didn’t exactly go according to plan. The reflex reaction to Roman Abramovich’s announcement that he was going to give ‘stewardship’ of the club to its charitable foundation was to double-check that this had no legal status; that there was no sophisticated strategy aimed at exploiting a loophole.

Within an hour, it had been confirmed that the £1.5bn owed to Abramovich (through his company Camberley International, which is based in the British Virgin Islands) was not going to be written off, that Chelsea remain under the ownership of a company called Fordstam, and that this company remains 100% owned by Roman Abramovich. Nothing, legally speaking, had changed.

The response was immediate, and it didn’t exactly go as Abramovich had hoped. Speaking on Sky Sports after the match between Everton and Manchester City, Micah Richards described the decision as “poor” for sending out an unclear message. Neither supporters nor the media, once the initial shock of the announcement – the likes of which has never been seen before – had sunk in, seemed particularly inclined to be convinced by this apparent show of ‘charity’.

What was intended to be read as a statement of care for the club was interpreted as a statement of care for himself. To a point, that may even be understandable. It is clearly a tricky tightrope to walk, avoiding getting on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin at the moment. But let’s not start thinking that he’s divesting himself of this extremely valuable asset at considerable financial cost.

The bad publicity continued into the following morning. Abramovich’s statement had not mentioned Russia or Ukraine, and when Chelsea released a short statement saying, ‘The situation in Ukraine is horrific and devastating. Chelsea FC’s thoughts are with everyone in Ukraine. Everyone at the club is praying for peace,’ this was met with a further barrage on social media. Before the Carabao Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool, Jamie Carragher said that “they’ve embarrassed themselves”, while Gary Neville said: “In fact, if anything, I thought it was a cowardly approach to throw a hospital pass to good people on the charitable and foundation board, when it’s quite clear he runs the club.”

And then, not that long before kick-off, came a story from the Telegraph that the trustees of the Chelsea Foundation hadn’t actually yet accepted the offer, with reported concerns including how this change of ‘stewardship’ may be considered by the Premier League themselves, whether running a football club as part of the foundation could be compatible with charity law, whether some sort of new entity would therefore need to be created, who they would ultimately be answerable to, and questions of liability over future decisions. It has also been suggested that trustees may not want to act or be perceived as a ‘front’ for Abramovich. And if you stop and think about that for a moment, it is not a strong look for Abramovich if people are saying that they don’t want to act or be perceived as a ‘front’ for him.

The Carabao Cup final against Liverpool was, at least, a two-hour oasis during which current crises could be put to one side. Chelsea lost the match, eventually, but the result didn’t feel of any particular significance. Thomas Tuchel expressed his displeasure at having been put in this position in the first place, which is completely understandable, but that nothing had changed in terms of how he intended to go about his job. Ukrainian flags fluttered around Wembley at both ends of the stadium.

But when the bunting was put away and the gates were locked at the end of another cup final day, all the questions that had been there before kick-off loomed just as large. The answer to the question of ‘where does Roman Abramovich go from here?’ turned out to be the Ukrainian-Russian border, where it was reported that he had gone to help mediate in negotiations, although it has already been acknowledged that his influence would be ‘limited’. But Abramovich has long played down his connections with Putin, so how much of a difference might this even make, or was he lying in the first place?

Meanwhile back in London, the feeling of uncertainty hanging over Chelsea remains. There has been much talk of the club being ‘insulated’ from whatever may happen next, and with their assets being ‘ring-fenced’, but how realistic is this? The momentum is still building towards harsher and harsher sanctions against these oligarchs, so the extent to which the club even can be ‘protected’ may be debatable. If anything, the club’s success under Abramovich may even prove to be its best form of insurance.

The club is likely worth more than the £1.5bn that it owes on the accounts to Abramovich, and this makes the possibility of finding a buyer, should it be required, somewhat more straightforward, even if it’s difficult to see how such a sale might proceed with sanctions in place. It’s likely that ongoing investment will end – Abramovich put £20m into the club during the 2019/20 season – but the financial benefits of regularly finishing in the Champions League places for some considerable time should insulate the club from the worst.

But this is all speculation because the grim truth of the matter is that no-one knows exactly where this all ends, and even the matter of whether Chelsea might be affected by sanctions against Russia feels like an irrelevance when thinly veiled threats of obliterating Europe hang heavy in the air. Perhaps Roman Abramovich can have some sort of positive effect in the ongoing negotiations. Perhaps someone will talk some sense into Putin and we can all be dragged back from the brink of holocaust. The only thing that remains certain for now is that Roman Abramovich still owns Chelsea Football Club, regardless of his peculiar statement over the weekend.