Roman Abramovich has confirmed he is planning to sell Chelsea, with the Russian billionaire pledging to donate any net proceeds from the sale to help victims of the war in Ukraine. So what changes can the club expect under a new regime?
The fear for Chelsea has always been what the club would look like once Abramovich has gone. The Russian billionaire did not just save Chelsea in 2003 and break up the duopoly of Manchester United and Arsenal, but provided an unprecedented ownership model. Rich men have bought clubs in the past – Jack Walker had acquired his home-town club of Blackburn Rovers and won the league title – but Abramovich’s plan (and wealth) was on a different scale.
That moment is now upon us. Offers have been fielded in the past, Abramovich first employed the US investment bank Raine Group to value Chelsea four years ago, but he has always been in a position of strength to reject them. Not now. Now he is soliciting for a sale and will have to accept as little as half the £4billion (€4.8bn) he wants. The oligarch is owed £1.51billion (€1.82bn) in loans and is prepared to write off that debt.
In theory, a sale can be concluded quickly, although Abramovich has insisted it will not be “fast-tracked”. Chelsea are owned through an Abramovich company called Fordstam Limited which is registered offshore in the British Virgin Islands and a transfer of ownership is relatively simple through a sale and purchase agreement which can be arranged through a notary. But will the UK government sit back and let this happen or will they just want him gone?
Abramovich would leave Chelsea in reasonable shape – as long as its liabilities can be covered. And that remains a big caveat. Between 2009 and 2020 Chelsea were responsible for almost a fifth (£803million) of combined Premier League club losses (£4.1billion). They could cope only because of his ownership. It means that Chelsea’s current way of operating is dependent on Abramovich or a similar wealthy owner.
The most pressing question for a buyer is Stamford Bridge. Abramovich shelved plans for a new 60,000-seat stadium and building a new one is not only fraught with planning difficulties but would be eye-wateringly expensive. However, Chelsea will always be limited from a financial sustainability point unless they can expand.
This is the ‘$64,000 question’ – or the £4billion question, as Abramovich would have liked it to be. Chelsea appear to be a well-run powerhouse of European football. But the latest set of accounts detailed not just a £145.6million (€175m) loss but came with the admission that the club is “reliant on Fordstam Limited for its continued financial support”. Fordstam indicated it would continue to support Chelsea “for the foreseeable future”. But what if that is coming to an end? What will replace it?
Until now it has meant Chelsea can cope with the losses they have accrued and can still compete in the transfer market as one of the most powerful clubs while also paying high wages to attract the best players. But that may change. The future would depend on any new owner’s approach.
If it were a hedge fund or an owner who takes a similar approach to the Glazers, when they bought Manchester United and loaded the club with debt (rather than personal loans), then things might have to change quite dramatically. Even billionaire duo Hansjorg Wyss and Todd Boehly are unlikely to follow Abramovich’s example.
Crucially – and this is an unknown factor – it may affect the mentality of the club and players and how attractive Chelsea is to them. They have known of Abramovich’s commitment, that he will spend, that he does pay well, that he is relatively benevolent and that money is available. Abramovich has actually been an attraction for some players and, of course, their agents who have remained keen to keep him happy. If he goes they may feel differently.
It has given Chelsea an edge and built confidence in the team even when managers come and go so frequently. Abramovich, and through him the key director Marina Granovskaia and, more recently, the technical and performance adviser and former player Petr Cech, have provided far greater certainty and stability than the apparently volatile approach would normally warrant.
When Chelsea is sold it is difficult to see a similar owner to Abramovich coming in. It may be the end of an era in more ways than one.
Despite hiring and firing managers through the past two decades, Abramovich is incredibly loyal to his staff and business associates and that is reciprocated. There has actually been very little change to the club’s hierarchy and advisers since 2003.
Chief executives have come and gone, with varying degrees of power, as have directors of football, but the core group has remained the same. Abramovich’s friends, including Eugene Shvidler, are called the “golden circle” although that mainly refers to his business associates outside of the club and not directly involved with Chelsea.
The three key figures at Chelsea have been there from the start: the chairman Bruce Buck, a Chelsea fan who was brought in once the takeover was completed having worked on the deal in his capacity as a lawyer; Eugene Tenenbaum (who was actually born in Ukraine) who is a director and has worked with Abramovich for decades and Granovskaia who is the Russian-born de facto chief executive (although there is a chief executive in Guy Laurence). She is simply listed as a director but is far more than that.
Granovskaia, who moved from Moscow when the takeover happened, runs Chelsea for Abramovich and has learnt quickly and is highly regarded within football. She is very close to Abramovich and is fiercely loyal, Both Tenenbaum and Granovskaia used to work for Sibneft, the oil company Abramovich sold in 2006.
If Chelsea are sold Tenenbaum and Granovskaia would obviously go with Abramovich although it would be shrewd of any buyer to keep Buck in place, at least for the time being, and not least because of his close involvement with the Premier League where he has been a key figure for many years, during a handover period.
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