The UK has added Russian oligarch and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich to its list of sanctioned individuals as part of its efforts to “isolate” Russian President Vlamidir Putin following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – throwing the sale of the London club into doubt and prohibiting the buying or selling of players until further notice.
In a statement Thursday, the UK government said it was adding seven oligarchs and politicians – including Abramovich – to its list of sanctioned individuals.
Abramovich announced this month he plans to sell Chelsea, as it is “in the best interest of the Club, the fans, the employees, as well as the Club’s sponsors and partners.” This came after he declared he gave “stewardship” of the club over to trustees of the club’s charitable foundation.
But the new sanctions will see his assets frozen and will prohibit “transactions with UK individuals and businesses,” the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office said in a statement Thursday. The billionaire will also face a travel ban forbidding him to enter the UK.
What CAN’T the club do?
According to the UK government, Chelsea will be given a special license to continue to “fulfil its fixtures and carry out football business” – including the payment of players and club staff – but certain actions will not be permitted, such as buying and selling new players and selling tickets for games beyond those already sold to fans.
Existing season ticket holders will be allowed to attend matches as well as fans who purchased tickets prior to Thursday.
Fans can buy food and drink at these matches, according to the statement, and under the sanctions, third-party retailers who bought or produced club merchandise prior to Thursday will be allowed to sell their existing stocks as long as no money is given to Chelsea. For now, the special license lasts until May 31.
The club released a statement on Thursday regarding the sanctions, saying, “We will fulfil our men’s and women’s team fixtures today against Norwich and West Ham, respectively, and intend to engage in discussions with the UK Government regarding the scope of the licence. This will include seeking permission for the licence to be amended in order to allow the Club to operate as normal as possible.”
What CAN the club do?
The Premier League released a statement saying that the “League will now work with the club and the Government to ensure the season will proceed as planned and in line with the Government’s intention.”
The Chelsea Supporters’ Trust – a nonprofit independent trust set up to “encourage” the club’s board to “take into account the interests of all supporters” amongst other purposes – expressed “concern” over the move.
“Supporters MUST be involved in any conversation regarding ongoing impacts on the club and its global fan base,” the trust said in a statement.
“The CST implores the Government to conduct a swift process to minimise the uncertainty over Chelsea’s future, for supporters and for supporters to be given a golden share as part of a sale of the club.”
Ramifications for Chelsea – and its players
Ben Peppi, sports commercial expert at JMW Solicitors, told CNN Sport that unless the UK government introduces a new license, Chelsea can’t be sold.
“Abramovich won’t be allowed to put any money into the club or take any money out of it. As we know, he has funded Chelsea to the tune of billions of pounds and has a £1.5 billion ($1.98 billion) loan that Chelsea currently owes to Abramovich,” he said.
“We don’t currently know where the money to pay players is coming from – whether it just be coming from kind of day-to-day trading the business i.e. broadcast revenue, commercial revenue. Obviously, matchday revenue contributes to that, and we know that no new tickets can be sold, no new merchandise can be sold that benefits either the club or Abramovich – it can only benefit the retailers.”
This could have significant implications for the club, which is already seeing sponsors considering their contracts with Chelsea.
Chelsea’s shirt sponsor Three, the mobile phone and telecommunications company, said in a statement that they have asked the club to temporarily suspend its sponsorship of the club. The company had told CNN earlier on Thursday that it was reviewing its position with Chelsea after the UK government sanctioned owner Roman Abramovich.
“In light of the government’s recently announced sanctions, we have requested Chelsea Football Club temporarily suspend our sponsorship of the club, including the removal of our brand from shirts and around the stadium until further notice,” Three said in a statement.
“We recognise that this decision will impact the many Chelsea fans who follow their team passionately. However, we feel that given the circumstances, and the Government sanction that is in place, it is the right thing to do.”
Meanwhile, automotive giant Hyundai, Chelsea’s official partner since 2018, said it is “assessing the situation” following the news.
“Hyundai has become one of the strongest partners in football over the years and the company supports the sport to be a force for good. We are currently assessing the situation with Chelsea FC,” a Hyundai spokesperson told CNN.
Hyundai’s logo appears on the shirt sleeves for the men’s and women’s teams through to the Academy teams, and the current four-deal is due to come to an end this year.
“If Mr. Abramovich can’t finance the club, and you’ve also got other sources of commercial revenue coming into the club that are now going to start to basically dry out given the sanctions imposed, the long term implications are very significant if a sale isn’t made,” Peppi said.
Though Chelsea could negotiate with potential buyers, the club can’t be sold until a special license is granted, he added.
“If they’re not generating any commercial matchday revenue, and they’re not going to be able to draw on shareholder loans, where’s the money going to come from to prop up the club?
“I anticipate a new owner will be found. But it’s going to be a far different kind of sale process than it looked like it was going to be, even last week.”
The sanctions will also have implications for Chelsea’s players, Peppi said.
“The immediate short term players whose contracts are running down means that those players are entitled to essentially leave on a free transfer at the end at the end of the season because they’re out of contract.”
For players with contracts beyond the end of the season, nothing will change until May 31, Peppi said.
In the long term, he said, “it goes to this wider, wider theme around the kind of cultural political, social impact of football as being way more powerful than it ever has been.
“And are players going to want to sign for Chelsea – for a club like Chelsea, a club like Newcastle – where they know the volatility of the situation with regards to the ownership structure of the football club?”
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel says he isn’t worried about the recent sanctions imposed on Abramovich by the UK government but acknowledged the “noise” that surrounds the team.
“I’m not sure I am concerned but I am aware of it. It changes almost every day. … I’m still happy to be here and still happy to be manager of a strong football team.”
British Member of Parliament Chris Bryant has previously called for Abramovich to be stripped of his ownership of Chelsea. Speaking in the House of Commons in February, Bryant quoted a leaked 2019 UK government document that identified Abramovich’s alleged “links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices.” Abramovich has always denied being linked to Putin and rejected claims that any of his activities merited government sanctions.
Abramovich is worth is an estimated £9.4 billion ($12.36 billion), according to the UK government.
The UK is “absolutely determined” to sanction Russian oligarchs, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said this month, adding that the UK was working through “a further list” of oligarchs to sanction.
“There is nowhere for any of Putin’s cronies to hide,” Truss continued.
Separately, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, announced on Thursday it had suspended its “strategic partnership” with Abramovich, after announcing last month that the billionaire had pledged funding to its “endeavors in the areas of Holocaust research and remembrance.”
“In light of recent developments, Yad Vashem has decided to suspend the strategic partnership with Mr. Roman Abramovich,” the museum tweeted.
The donation would have helped support Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research for five years and build it a new building. Additionally, the donation would have created “two new versions of The Book of Names unique memorial to the victims of the Holocaust,” according to Yad Vashem’s announcement at the time.
CNN’s George Ramsay, David Close, Jacob Levs, Aleks Klosok and Hadas Gold contributed reporting.