Chelsea are in crisis but there is no will to leave club on their knees
Premier League and UK government do not want sanctions on Roman Abramovich to destroy club but swift sale is required
Everybody knew the sanctions were coming; they had been inevitable, according to UK government sources. Roman Abramovich, the Chelsea owner, was in their crosshairs because of his links to Vladimir Putin, which had moved beyond the pale after Russia’s senseless invasion of Ukraine. Abramovich himself knew they were coming. Hence his decision to try to sell his UK assets, including Chelsea.
But when they did arrive at 9am on Thursday, they were still able to blindside the Chelsea hierarchy. On Wednesday, they had certainly not anticipated the imposition of them the following morning. The club entered a state of shock. So many questions, so few answers. Some of the players were concerned about what the future held for them – given that one of the measures involved Chelsea not being able to operate in the transfer market or offer new contracts. Ditto many members of staff. What did it all mean?
As the day progressed, the Premier League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, sent an email to the clubs. It was still early, nothing felt concrete, but there was a business-as-usual tone to his note. Masters reassured everybody that Chelsea would complete their remaining fixtures of the season. The integrity of the competition would not be compromised and it was a theme picked up by Thomas Tuchel. “As long as we have enough shirts and as long as the bus is full of fuel we will arrive and we will be competitive,” the Chelsea manager said.
The players have been told to concentrate on what they can influence, which they did on Thursday night with the 3-1 win at Norwich, keeping them third. Next is the visit of Newcastle to Stamford Bridge on Sunday which, it is fair to say, will be flavoured by ownership issues. But what kind of Chelsea will emerge from the sanctions which have set them on a path to ruin?
The first thing to say is that the world and European champions, who have won 21 trophies since Abramovich’s takeover in 2003 – more than any other English club during the period – will surely not be put out of business, however hard the financial restrictions that have been brought against them appear.
There is still time to find a buyer and for them to stabilise the operation, especially if the deal were done by 31 May – when the club’s special licence to carry on is due to expire. There remain plenty of interested parties, who can only see Chelsea’s price dropping as sponsors pull out or consider their associations; as revenue streams are hit.
Moreover, the government, which is effectively in charge of the sale – given the sanctions against Abramovich would not allow him to profit from it – have an interest in the transaction going through. They want Abramovich out for obvious reasons, including the optics, and they do not want to send Chelsea to the wall as they consider the club to be of cultural significance to the country. If Abramovich were to remain as the owner into next season, with sanctions biting ever deeper, that could happen.
Could Abramovich dig in and take the ship down with him? Given everything we know about him and his love for Chelsea, his desire to hand over to responsible owners, it feels unlikely. And, in any case, the government have reserved the right to requisition the club, as a last resort, and sell it themselves. They have given Abramovich no room for manoeuvre, forcing him away, and, if there is financial pain for the club, it is at a level they believe they will get through.
On a related point, as Chelsea potentially encounter difficulties in satisfying the league’s profit and sustainability rules, there does not seem to be a desire among the other clubs for them to be driven under. They recognise that a strong Chelsea is important for the collective brand. The league, meanwhile, is always loth to create a mess with points deductions, for example. Again, it is not good for the competition.
If Chelsea were to fall foul of profit and sustainability, they would be expected to cite unforeseen circumstances, much as some clubs have claimed Covid writedowns: their books would have been sound but for the pandemic.
Chelsea continue to try to process the sanctions and argue against some of them. Many areas of the business stand to be affected, with the government wanting to ensure that any revenue generated by the club cannot find its way back to the Putin regime.
A part of the nervousness at Chelsea involves whether any more sponsors will follow the telecommunications and internet service provider Three in withdrawing support, at least temporarily. There are normally anti-embarrassment clauses in such arrangements and, from a corporate social responsibility point of view, the upside of standing by a tarnished individual is often outweighed by the downside.
The Three deal is worth £40m a year, although it is unclear how much more, if anything, was due to Chelsea before the end of the season. The kit contract with Nike is the big one – it is worth £60m a year.
The ticketing and merchandising sanctions should not hit too hard, as the end of the season looms, but there could be larger holes with the final portion of the broadcast deal and the prize money from the Premier League and Uefa to be frozen. If Chelsea were to finish third in the league, it would be worth about £34m. Then there are the sums that Abramovich would be permitted to invest within the parameters of the profit and sustainability rules – £105m over a rolling three-year period. That, plainly, has stopped and so, to repeat, it is imperative that the transfer of ownership happens with a degree of speed.
What is clear is that Chelsea will live a different reality without Abramovich and there is a strong chance that it will not be as exciting. In football terms, he was the ideal owner: no money constraints; an individual motivated purely by aggrandisement, to succeed year after year.
Abramovich’s day of reckoning has come. Chelsea have the memories and the conflicting emotions.
- Roman Abramovich
- Premier League