Under political pressure over links he’s believed to have to Vladimir Putin, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has put the club in the care of its trustees. But what does the gesture really mean?
Roman Abramovich put Chelsea in the hands of its trustees this weekend. But what did that mean, and why did he do it?
When it comes to Russian oligarchs in London, there are none more high-profile than Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
After Russia invaded Ukraine last week, Downing Street hoped to put pressure on Vladimir Putin by sanctioning those UK-based oligarchs and seizing assets.
How would Roman Abramovich – who had never given a single interview about Chelsea before – handle the increased scrutiny from the intense political situation?
“This is his statement. During my nearly 20-year ownership of Chelsea FC, I’ve always viewed my role as a custodian of the club, whose job it is ensuring that we are as successful as we can be today as well as build for the future, whilst also playing a positive role in our communities. I’ve always taken decisions with the club’s best interest at heart. I remain committed to these values. That is why I’m giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC.”Sky Sports News
Another statement from Chelsea followed. It was 24 words long.
“The situation in Ukraine is horrific and devastating. Chelsea FC’s thoughts are with everyone in Ukraine. Everyone at the club is praying for peace.”
Nowhere did the words “Russia” or “war” or ‘invasion’ appear in their press release, and the football world did not let the club off the hook.
Chelsea played in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday. Which gave pundit Jamie Carragher a chance to react to the news coming out of the club.
“No, I think they’ve been really poor, I think they’ve let themselves down badly. And I think the club came out today and put a statement out as well but I think that was almost trying to rectify what Roman Abramovich had put out the night before and I don’t think they did that well either really so it’s not worked out well for them at all, I think they’ve embarrassed themselves. They should be a lot stronger…”Sky Sports News
What did the Roman Abramovich statement mean in real terms?
First of all, it definitely didn’t mean that Roman Abramovich would be selling up.
He bought 100% of Chelsea in 2003, after making his fortune when Russian oil assets were newly privatised.
He remains the sole owner of Chelsea Football Club.
The trustees that Roman Abramovich referred to are the custodians of Chelsea’s charitable foundation.
They include the Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck, Chelsea women’s boss Emma Hayes, and Sir Hugh Robertson, the vice-chair of the British Olympic Association.
They are not paid for their role as trustees and – according to reports – were not asked and have not yet agreed to take over the “stewardship” of the club.
So, if Roman Abramovich still owns Chelsea, why did he need to make this move?
Chris Bryant – a Labour MP – told parliament that he’d got hold of a leaked Home Office document from 2019.
It said that Her Majesty’s Government’s Russia strategy aims at targeting illicit finance and malign activity.
And Roman Abramovich “remains of interest” over links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices.
“Surely Mr. Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country. Surely we should be looking at seizing some of his assets including his £152 million home…”Chris Bryant
Chris Bryant said the document revealed that Roman Abramovich had admitted in court that he’d paid for political influence.
“Like all oligarchs, he’s had to deal with Vladimir Putin. In 2012, a UK High Court Judge said Roman Abramovich had ‘very good relations’ with and ‘privileged access’ to Putin. A 2016 BBC Panorama programme said a 33 and a half million dollar yacht was reportedly given to Vladimir Putin by Mr. Abramovich. He denies having a close relationship with Putin and when asked about the yacht, his lawyers dismissed the claims as ‘speculation and rumour’.”BBC
Despite the absolute denial of any links to the Russian government, Roman Abramovich was always going to face scrutiny when Russia invaded Ukraine.
So when he handed over the stewardship of Chelsea to the trustees, he also took a step away from that intense scrutiny.
And although the statement meant very little in real terms, It could be seen as a move to disconnect Chelsea – as a football club – from any potential sanctions Roman Abramovich may face personally.
The wording was criticised. But it may have been less of a PR campaign and more a document for legal protection for the club.
On Monday, a spokesperson for Roman Abramovich confirmed that he had been contacted by the Ukrainian side for help in brokering a peaceful resolution, and was reportedly the only Russian to have agreed to this kind of request.
The Abramovich representative also asked for understanding over why they have not commented on neither the situation as such… nor his involvement.
Chelsea fans are facing an uncertain time. Has Roman Abramovich done enough to protect his football club?
Today’s story was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Imy Harper.