Chelsea Is for Sale as Pressure on Roman Abramovich Mounts

LONDON — Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch whose vast fortune transformed Chelsea into a global soccer powerhouse, confirmed Wednesday that he is actively seeking to sell the team. He has set a deadline of Friday for interested parties to submit “indicative offers” for the club he has owned for almost two decades, and is said to be seeking at least $2.5 billion for the club.

Only days ago, Abramovich, 55, had announced his intention to transfer the “stewardship and care” of Chelsea to members of its charitable foundation. The move — in which he notably did not suggest he would surrender ownership of Chelsea — was seemingly designed to distance the club from the impact of any possible sanctions levied by the British government against him as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Britain this week proposed new legislation targeting wealthy Russians like Abramovich, many of whom amassed their fortunes through cronyism or ties to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and then shielded it overseas behind shell companies and opaque investment deals.

But on Wednesday, in confirming his decision to sell the team, Abramovich framed the sale as a painful and personal sacrifice, but one from which he would not profit. Abramovich said he would not seek the repayment of the roughly $2 billion of his personal fortune he had invested in Chelsea over the two decades he had owned it, and also said he had instructed his representatives to set up a charitable foundation to receive the net proceeds of the sale “for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.”

The comments about Ukraine were his strongest yet addressing the impact of Russia’s invasion, and its effects on its neighbor and its residents. His words, however, stopped short of condemning President Putin, or Russia, for launching military action.

“Please know that this has been an incredibly difficult decision to make, and it pains me to part with the club in this manner,” Abramovich said. “However, I do believe this is in the best interest of the club.”

Though Abramovich had suggested in a rare public statement on Saturday that the Chelsea foundation trustees were best placed to “look after the interests of the club, players, staff and fans,” he has in recent days tasked the Raine Group, a New York advisory firm, with identifying a new owner for the team. Prospective investors have been informed they must have prepared an outline of their bid by the end of this week.

Their number includes Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire noted for his support for progressive causes, who told the Swiss newspaper Blick that he was among a group of four people to have “received an offer to buy Chelsea” on Tuesday. Wyss insisted that he would not buy the club alone, and would prefer to be a part of a consortium of “six or seven investors.”

“Abramovich is trying to sell all his villas in England; he also wants to get rid of Chelsea quickly,” Wyss told Blick. “Abramovich is currently asking far too much. You know, Chelsea owe him £2 billion. But Chelsea has no money. As of today, we don’t know the exact selling price.”

Another contender, Todd Boehly, a billionaire investor and a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, reportedly offered Abramovich $2.9 billion for Chelsea in 2019. The current price is believed to be around $2.5 billion, though there is speculation that it will fall lower still if Abramovich’s urgency to part with the team grows.

Chelsea had been directing interested parties toward Raine whenever groups attracted by the glamour of owning the London team made contact. But until this week, Abramovich had shown little appetite for selling.

That has changed with notable speed. Abramovich has been named on several occasions as a suitable target for sanctions in Britain’s parliament since Putin commanded Russian forces to attack Ukraine last week.

Chris Bryant, a lawmaker for the opposition Labour party, this week claimed that Abramovich was hastily trying to sell off his British property portfolio in anticipation of his assets being frozen, and asked if he should be allowed to continue owning a soccer team. On Wednesday, Keir Starmer, the Labour party leader, directly asked the prime minister, Boris Johnson, why Abramovich had not yet been targeted.

Abramovich has always claimed, often with the support of lawyers, that he has no connection to Putin and nothing to do with politics. On Monday, his private representative was reported to have suggested — without evidence — that he had been asked to try to negotiate a peace settlement in Ukraine. The comments came only days after officials close to Abramovich suggested the billionaire had no role in politics or close ties to Putin.

Abramovich has owned Chelsea since 2003, having bought the team seemingly on a whim — negotiations, the story went, took place over a single weekend — and for reasons that have remained opaque. He had previously considered moves for Arsenal, Tottenham and Fulham, as well as examining the possibility of buying teams in Spain and Italy, but why he settled on soccer at all has never been adequately explained. Abramovich does not give interviews.

He arrived at Chelsea when it was at a comparatively low ebb, struggling to qualify for the Champions League and without a domestic championship in half a century. But the infusion of his personal fortune, amassed through his stake in the Russian oil giant Sibneft and his interests in the country’s aluminum industry, changed that almost immediately.

Abramovich bankrolled some of the most lavish spending in soccer history, attracting a rotating cast of stars to Stamford Bridge and kick-starting a decades-long inflationary spiral that only a handful of other clubs have been able to match. Under his ownership, Chelsea has won five Premier League titles, two Champions League crowns — most recently last May — and, only a few weeks ago, the Club World Cup.

Abramovich, who has rarely seen his team in England over the last few years after withdrawing his application for a British visa in 2018, joined his players on the field in Abu Dhabi to celebrate their most recent trophy, just as he had when it won the European title in Portugal last May.

The team’s most recent accounts provided a clear illustration of how Abramovich’s wealth has been able to subsidize huge losses in order to keep the team successful: Chelsea lost more than $200 million on its way to that second Champions League title last season. Abramovich is estimated to have invested something in the region of $2 billion in the club — interest-free loans worth about 10 times the price he paid for the team — since acquiring it in 2003.

His announcement on Saturday that he intended to hand the “care” of Chelsea to the trustees of its charitable arm indicated that he was sufficiently worried by the prospect of the freezing of his assets in Britain to try to limit its impact on the club. The move was so surprising to those trustees that several are believed to have expressed their concerns to the Charity Commission, Britain’s charity regulator, which confirmed that it had opened a “serious incident report” in the aftermath of Abramovich’s unilateral announcement. Staff members are similarly bewildered at the pace of events.

The charity trustees, who were told of the plan only hours before it was made public on Saturday, held a meeting a day later with a specialist lawyer hired by Chelsea. It quickly emerged that moving responsibility for Chelsea into the charity would not be easy, or perhaps not even possible.

“We have contacted the charity seeking information and, in line with our guidance, the charity has also made a report to the commission,” the Charity Commission said in a brief statement.

A person with direct knowledge of the talks, though, said the concerns, and the obstacles, were clear. “Legally the objective of the charity is to provide community football, support young people and run some minor football facilities, that’s all it is,” the person said. “It can’t run a £1.5 billion football club with professional footballers and staff. It’s not equipped for that.”

Once it became clear that moving the club into the charity would be a protracted process that could eventually fail, and with suggestions that sanctions could be imminent, Abramovich and his advisers sought a new plan: a sale.

On Wednesday, he pushed back on reports that he was in a hurry to complete a deal. But in the same statement he hinted that a sale might not take long.

“I hope that I will be able to visit Stamford Bridge one last time to say goodbye to all of you in person,” he said in a reference’s to Chelsea’s London home. “It has been a privilege of a lifetime to be part of Chelsea F.C. and I am proud of all our joint achievements. Chelsea Football Club and its supporters will always be in my heart.”

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