The liquidator: Abramovich sanctions and disqualification threatens status-quo for rogue Premier League owners

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with Roman Abramovich, governor of the Chukotka region, billionaire and owner of the Chelsea Football Club during their meeting in Moscow, 27 May 2005.
8 min read
12 March, 2022
The UK Government's sweeping sanctions of Russian oligarchs in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted the infamous owner of Chelsea F.C Roman Abramovich to place the club up for sale, with the club now facing a period of uncertainty.

The sanctioning of Roman Abramovich on Thursday followed by his disqualification as a director of Chelsea football club on Saturday sent shockwaves around the sporting world with concerns heightening among other owners of major European clubs, including those from the Arab world.

Abramovich took the English football by storm when he bought Chelsea in 2003 and turned an unpredictable and flighty London club into a global powerhouse and the current European and world champions.

His manner of leaving in 2022 was no less dramatic but not what anyone had expected. It all started or ended, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Abramovich’s association and relationship with that country’s President Vladimir Putin.

"At present there are several Americans in charge [of clubs in the English Premier League] and there are others from China, Thailand, Italy and Serbia. The Middle East is well-represented with Iran, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. All will be watching events closely"

The Russian billionaire had his assets seized by the UK government on Thursday. A statement from London described the 55-year-old Abramovich as a “pro-Kremlin Oligarch."

It went on to say: "Abramovich is associated with a person who is or has been involved in destabilising Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin, with whom Abramovich has had a close relationship for decades.”

Abramovich, who has invested – according to reports – around $2 billion into Chelsea over the last 19 years has been trying in recent days to find a buyer as the shadow of sanctions loomed.

It remains to be seen what happens but with the club unable to sell tickets, merchandise and players under the current restrictions and also having major sponsor accounts frozen, the immediate future is unclear. 

The sanctions placed on Abramovich by the UK government has placed the future of Chelsea FC in serious doubt [Getty Images]
The sanctions placed on Abramovich by the UK government has placed the future of Chelsea FC in doubt [Getty Images]

"As long as we have enough shirts and a bus to drive to the games, we'll be there and will compete hard," Chelsea head coach Thomas Tuchel said on BBC radio after his team’s 3-1 win over Norwich City on Thursday. "We take it day by day. I didn't see that coming yesterday and I don't know what is coming tomorrow."

Whatever happens, Abramovich will be unable to receive any money from any sale which is surely not going to come anywhere close to the $4 billion or so he reportedly wanted.

No 10 are "open" to the club being sold as long as Abramovich does not "financially profit from it." 

"The government has made clear that we need to hold to account those who have enabled the Putin regime. We are open to a sale of the club and would consider an application for a licence to allow that to happen."

Abramovich the game changer

The Russian, who made his fortune in the chaotic business environment in his homeland in the nineties, changed the face of English and European football as the first overseas billionaire owner to move into the big leagues.

Back in 2003, there was only one foreign owner in the entire English Premier League, Mohamed Al-Fayed. The Egyptian businessman was in charge of West London rivals Fulham and many felt that his ownership of the homely club was targeted towards helping him receive a British passport that, in the end, never came.

About the only thing Abramovich had in common with Al-Fayed, apart from the location of his new club, was his desire for additional passports. In 2018, with relations between Russia and the UK strained leading to delays with the renewal of his British visa, he was granted Israeli citizenship.

In 2020, it was reported that companies under the control of Abramovich had donated around $100 million to Elad, a group that supports settlers occupying land that belongs to Palestinians.

Earlier this month, Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum and memorial, asked the United States not to sanction Abramovich as a number of Jewish institutions relied on his donations. He also developed close relations with some Israeli politicians and in a visit to London in 2021, the country’s president Isaac Herzog praised Chelsea as a "shining light in the fight against anti-Semitism".

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If Abramovich was more successful than Al-Fayed in obtaining passports, as a football owner, he operated on a much bigger scale. His arrival changed everything. 

His unprecedented brand of mega spending inflated wages and transfer fees and soon, he was being joined in England by fellow owners from around the world. At present, there are several Americans in charge and there are others from China, Thailand, Italy and Serbia. The Middle East is well-represented with Iran, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. All will be watching events closely. 

In 2008, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the ruling Abu Dhabi family bought Manchester City and this was another turning point in the English, European and the world game.

After massive investment on and off the pitch, the Sky Blues, who, similarly to Chelsea, had been an inconsistent team, have become a superpower. The current English champions met Abramovich’s team in last year’s UEFA Champions League final, the biggest club game in the world.

"The UK government’s decision to seize Chelsea has sent shockwaves around the world. Despite huge investment, the Russian is out in the cold. It is something that will be studied closely by all international owners of big clubs in the England Premier League"

City’s rise showed what a club could do with the finances of a state behind them. In June 2011, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund Qatar Sports Investments bought Paris Saint-Germain, another underachiever with potential.

Similarly, with Chelsea and Manchester City, PSG has, thanks to the signings of global stars such as Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, become a major force.

In October, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) bought 80 percent of struggling English Premier League club Newcastle United. After spending around $120 million on new players such as England international Kieran Trippier, Newcastle, who despite their on-pitch problems still attracted crowds of 50,000, have started to win games and move away from relegation worries.

There has been criticism of the takeovers of Manchester, Paris and Newcastle, citing them as examples of foreign states getting involved in local cultural and community assets and with their massive investments, distorting the domestic competitions.

Amanda Staveley, the broker of the Newcastle deal, denied that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was connected to the club. “PIF is very much an autonomous, commercially driven investment fund,” Staveley told the Associated Press, adding “and it does not operate as part of the wider state. So there is that separation.” Despite assurances given to the Premier League that the Saudi Arabian state would have no direct control over the team, there have been questions as to how much distance there really is.

Perspectives

Nobody really knows why Abramovich bought Chelsea as he rarely spoke in public. There have been theories as to the reasons behind other takeovers as, after all, owning a football club is not a reliable way to make money.

There have been accusations of ‘sport washing’, a term coined to describe countries using sport, and in this case famous and successful football teams, to help improve their international image.

It is clear that for those who own big clubs and then choose to get actively involved in the game, there is influence to be had in the corridors of football power. PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is a member of the UEFA Executive Committee since 2019 and also the president of the European Club Association. 

The Abramovich effect

The UK government’s decision to seize Chelsea and the Premier League's decision to disqualify Abramovich has sent shockwaves around the world. Despite huge investment, the Russian is out in the cold. It is something that will be studied closely by all international owners of big clubs in the England Premier League and in a number of other big leagues of Europe.

In the short term, it may well be good news for the likes of City, Newcastle and PSG. As European champions, Chelsea is a major force in the Premier League and the continent. If the Blues, who rose to the top due to financial power then become weaker financially then, their position in the elite could become under threat, It could remove a rival.

“It's not hyperbole to say the future of the club is in serious danger,” said former Chelsea player Pat Nevin. “I can't say 'everything will be OK'. I think the club will survive. Will it look the same after all this is over? No, I don't think that will be the case.”

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If the medium and long-term, the consequences are even more unclear. This is uncharted territory with geopolitics directly intervening in football. There were rumours in 2008 that the 2008 English Premier League put pressure on Thaksin Shinawatra to sell Manchester City due to accusations of human rights violations during his time as Thailand Prime Minister but this is another level.

It remains to be seen what happens but international owners, Arab and otherwise, may rethink their strategy of pumping hundreds of millions of dollars, or more, into football assets overseas. Football is an unpredictable game at the best of times and has just become a little more so.

John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times,  as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.

Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden