Britain freezes assets of Roman Abramovich, blocking Chelsea sale
By Tariq Panja and Rory Smith
A proposed sale of Chelsea FC, one of Europe’s leading soccer teams, was effectively blocked by the British government on Thursday when it froze the assets of the club’s Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, as part of a wider set of sanctions announced against a group of wealthy Russian businessmen.
The government, in announcing its actions against Abramovich and six other Russian oligarchs, said it had already taken steps to ensure Chelsea would be able to continue its operations and complete its schedule. To protect the club’s interests, the government said, it issued Chelsea a license that will allow it to continue its soccer-related activities, including a Premier League match at Norwich City on Thursday night.
The license, which the government said would be under “constant review,” will ensure that the team’s players and staff will continue to be paid; that fans already holding season tickets can continue to attend games; and that the integrity of the Premier League, which is considered an important cultural asset and one of Britain’s most high-profile exports, will not be affected.
But to ensure that no money flows to Abramovich, the club will no longer be able to sell new tickets to any games or sell merchandise online or in its stores. And its business and daily activities may be seriously complicated, affecting everything from travel to sponsorship agreements to the team’s ability to buy and sell players in soccer’s multibillion-dollar player trading market.
Chelsea acknowledged the sanctions and their effect on the club, and said in a statement that it intended to enter into discussions with the government regarding the scope of the license the team had been granted.
“This will include,” the team said, “seeking permission for the license to be amended in order to allow the club to operate as normal as possible.”
At the club on Thursday, staff members were said to be struggling to come to terms with what the government’s actions would mean to them, their jobs, and the team. Many club officials, including Chelsea’s German coach, Thomas Tuchel, and Abramovich’s chief lieutenant, club director Marina Granovskaia, were trying to understand what they could and could not do.
At the team’s Stamford Bridge stadium, security officials closed the team shop and blocked visitors from entering the grounds. Elsewhere, the team’s jersey sponsor, the telecommunications company Three, said it was “reviewing our position.”
The freezing of Abramovich’s assets could make it impossible for him to follow through on his previously announced plans to sell Chelsea. Under the new sanctions, the British government will now have complete oversight of that process. The effect would be to heavily diminish any proposed sale price, but it could block a sale entirely since it is unlikely the government would allow such a large transfer of money — Abramovich was said to be seeking more than $2 billion for Chelsea — from being paid to an owner under sanctions.