Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich announced Saturday that he is giving direct control of the club to trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation. The news comes just days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the 55-year-old billionaire Russian owner finds himself at the center of the discussion over the country’s influence in London in particular.
“During my nearly 20-year ownership of Chelsea FC, I have 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, while also playing a positive role in our communities. I have always taken decisions with the club’s best interest at heart. I remain committed to these values. That is why I am today giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable Foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC.
“I believe that currently they are in the best position to look after the interests of the club, players, staff, and fans.”
With a League Cup final on the horizon Sunday where Chelsea will face Liverpool this is quite the shock ahead of an important game. But, as Abramovich’s ownership of the club could be called into question should stricter sanctions are imposed on Russia, these are uncertain times for the club, and the surprise statement from their Russian owner is surely driven by the uncertainty of the financial landscape he now finds himself in.
Along with American Bruce Buck as club chairman, the trustees now in the stewardship of the club include: John Devine, Chelsea women’s manager Emma Hayes, Piara Powar, Paul Ramos and Sir Hughe Robinson. For now, Chelsea are not up for sale and Abramovich still holds the ownership title, but obviously things seem to be fluid and could change at a moment’s notice with what’s happening in his home country. It remains to be seen if this is a temporary or permanent stewardship once the dominoes fall.
In the current climate there are precious few things that are clear with regards to Russia. That is especially true in matters related to its wealthiest magnates and their assets beyond their homes borders. Answers as to what Abramovich really meant in his statement were thin on the ground. The Chelsea Supporters Trust say they are “seeking urgent clarification on what this statement means for the running of Chelsea FC.”
All that can be said with certainty over Roman Abramovich and Chelsea is that he still owns the Premier League club.
A stewardship does not change that. Abramovich still owns Chelsea through Fordstam. Indeed the technicalities of this new arrangement are clear to legal experts. Perhaps that is the point.
“It’s not really a legal concept that as a corporate lawyer I would understand. It generally means you have given control of decision making to someone else but you would usually use a more precise phrase,” says Stuart Hatcher, a corporate partner with Forsters. “It looks to me like something that makes it looks like something has happened… but it is not really clear what has happened.
“The key question would be is Fordstam going to cease to be the person of significant control. You could either transfer the shares or, via a power of attorney, transfer control of the shares to the foundation and you do not have any control?”
Companies House still states Fordstam as the sole active person with significant control. There has been no indication that Chelsea are planning for that to change — with the possible exception of English Football Association consent it could be done relatively swiftly — nor that Abramovich will look to sell the club.
Fordstam is also, it should be noted, the major creditor at Stamford Bridge with a $2 billion loan on Chelsea’s books “provided by the ultimate controlling party, Mr. R Abramovich.” Hatcher suggests that that alone could make him a person of significant control even if he were to transfer ownership to the trustees.
Why do this then? It offers some semblance of distance between Abramovich and a club whose chief focus right now ought to be Sunday’s EFL Cup final. Thomas Tuchel acknowledged on Friday that events far away from the football pitch were impacting him and his players. Tuchel wants his players to be allowed “to be not political, to do sport and focus on sport”.
In the short term this announcement will not change it; what betting that the first question in his post match press conference is about his ultimate boss whatever the result?
Eventually, however, Abramovich’s stepping away from the club he seems to love so dearly may keep the focus on football.
More important is what happens if the British government opts to sanction Abramovich. It was notable that his statement did not contain any direct reference to the Russian invasion of Ukraine or his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Chris Bryant, Labour MP and chair of the all-part parliamentary group on Russia, called for him and Alisher Usmanov, who has close links to Everton, to do exactly that. “”Otherwise we will conclude that they are still in hock to Putin,” said Bryant.
It is not entirely clear that Chelsea will not be treated as an Abramovich asset, for the reasons mentioned above. It is also not clear what any sanctions would be. He could find his assets frozen but a more robust approach might see them seized.
What this stewardship may succeed in doing is muddying the waters around Chelsea and Abramovich, keeping them from being tarnished as pressure builds for western lawmakers to take action against Russian elites. It is too early to say whether it will be successful.
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