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Troubled waters? Chelsea's bid to leave Stamford Bridge

By Gary Morley, CNN
updated 6:39 AM EDT, Wed October 5, 2011
The present-day Chelsea Village development is a far cry from Stamford Bridge's origins as an athletics ground in 1876. The present-day Chelsea Village development is a far cry from Stamford Bridge's origins as an athletics ground in 1876.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chelsea's owner seeking to buy back Stamford Bridge so club can move
  • The west London stadium is owned by a fans' group in order to protect its future
  • English Premier League team hoping to build new ground to maximize revenue
  • Supporters' club could block the move if fans decide not to sell their shares

(CNN) -- Roman Abramovich is seeking to buy back Chelsea's home ground in order to switch to a new location that he hopes will help the English Premier League club remain competitive on an international scale.

Stamford Bridge, which dates back to 1876, once hosted a crowd of almost 83,000 people. But many decades since that 1935 landmark, its capacity is now only 41,841 -- having been converted into an all-seater venue in the safety-conscious 1990s .

However, ownership of the stadium was given to a fans' collective long before billionaire Abramovich bought the west London club in 2003, in order to fight off the prospect it would again be bought by property developers.

The terms of the deal which eventually sold Stamford Bridge to Chelsea Pitch Owners (CPO) in 1999, a move that required a £10 million ($15 million) loan from the club, meant the team cannot keep its name if it relocates.

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"We know only too well how close the club came to losing our home prior to the formation of CPO, but that threat has now gone under Mr. Abramovich's ownership," Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck told the club's website.

"And with the CPO structure in place, we cannot plan with certainty for the future. I hope all shareholders vote in favor of the proposal."

The CPO members will make their decision at a special meeting on October 27 that will have a massive bearing on Chelsea's future plans.

With the introduction of UEFA's financial fairplay rules looming, Chelsea's need to maximize revenue and become less dependent on the club's Russian benefactor is growing.

Premier League rivals Manchester United can entertain more than 75,000 fans at every home game, while Arsenal's Emirates Stadium holds some 60,000.

With the CPO structure in place, we cannot plan with certainty for the future
Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck

Bigger grounds are seen as the way ahead, with Tottenham recently losing out to West Ham in a bitterly-contested bid to take over London's new Olympic Stadium after 2012.

However, English clubs have some way to go before catching their European rivals.

Barcelona's Camp Nou has the continent's largest capacity at almost 100,000 while Spanish rivals Real Madrid top 85,000 at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Borussia Dortmund's Signal Iduna Park is the biggest football ground in Germany with a capacity of 80,000 for domestic matches, while Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena regularly brings in almost 70,000.

In Italy, the two Milan clubs can draw crowds of 80,000 -- though Juventus bucked the trend by moving to a smaller 41,000-capacity ground this season, leaving behind the unpopular 60,000-plus Stadio delle Alpi.

Success in Europe's biggest club competition, the Champions League, still eludes Abramovich despite the vast fortune he has pumped into Chelsea.

A move to a new venue -- which would be within a three-mile radius of the club's current home if completed by 2020, under terms of the offer to the CPO -- would be a big statement of his desire to make Chelsea a worldwide force.

"I am sure all Chelsea fans have enjoyed the football and success we have witnessed at Stamford Bridge since 2003, and Chelsea Football Club and Mr. Abramovich are determined to ensure that the club continues to compete at the highest level of world football," chief executive Ron Gourlay said.

Undoubtedly many fans would prefer to stay, and I suspect loss of hotels/restaurants would not be a major concern for many
Chelsea fan Peter T.

"We continue to look at options for expanding the Bridge, and I should be clear that we have not identified a site for a new stadium elsewhere."

Chelsea's offer to the CPO's 12,000 stakeholders is at the original price of £100 per share -- an investment of £1.5 million.

"Bear in mind that no-one bought these shares as a financial investment," Buck told the UK Press Association. "Everyone bought these shares as a way of helping the club and they also bought them as mementos and souvenirs.

"We haven't considered making them a big offer because we believe that they are fans of Chelsea Football Club and want to do what's best for Chelsea."

On offer is a promise that 10% of the planned minimum 55,000 seats will be available to families and fans aged under 21.

CPO shareholders who vote for the sale will be listed on a roll of honor at any new stadium, and would get priority for buying season tickets.

The Chelsea Supporters' Club, however, is not convinced that the club should leave its longtime home.

"Where is the proof that Stamford Bridge can't be expanded? Undoubtedly many fans would prefer to stay, and I suspect loss of hotels/restaurants would not be a major concern for many," Peter T. wrote in a statement on its website.

"The 'walk of honor' proposal is risible and insulting. Given that any new ground would be bigger, the 'priority season ticket' offer is surely nebulous as well, as well as morally reprehensible."

He also questioned why the vote had been called at such short notice, without any future venues being identified, and why the offer did not take into account inflation since the original 1993 CPO deal.

Needing a 50% majority approval from the CPO shareholders, Abramovich may yet find more obstacles in his dreams of world domination.

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