Britain Freezes Assets of Roman Abramovich, Blocking Chelsea Sale

A proposed sale of Chelsea F.C., one of Europe’s leading soccer teams, was effectively blocked by the British government on Thursday when it froze the assets of the club’s Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, as part of a wider set of sanctions announced against a group of wealthy Russian businessmen.

The government, in announcing its actions against Abramovich and six other Russian oligarchs, said it had already taken steps to ensure Chelsea would be able to continue its operations and complete its schedule. To protect the club’s interests, the government said, it issued Chelsea a license that will allow it to continue its soccer-related activities, including a Premier League match at Norwich City on Thursday night.

The license, which the government said would be under “constant review,” will ensure that the team’s players and staff will continue to be paid; that fans already holding season tickets can continue to attend games; and that the integrity of the Premier League, which is considered an important cultural asset and one of Britain’s most high-profile exports, will not be affected.

But to ensure that no money flows to Abramovich, the club will no longer be able to sell new tickets to any games or sell merchandise online or in its stores. And its business and daily activities may be seriously complicated, affecting everything from travel to sponsorship agreements to the team’s ability to buy and sell players in soccer’s multibillion-dollar player trading market.

Chelsea acknowledged the sanctions and their effect on the club, and said in a statement that it intended to enter into discussions with the government regarding the scope of the license the team had been granted.

“This will include,” the team said, “seeking permission for the license to be amended in order to allow the club to operate as normal as possible.”

At the club on Thursday morning, staff members were said to be struggling to come to terms with what the government’s actions would mean them, their jobs, and the team. Many club officials, including Chelsea’s German coach, Thomas Tuchel, and Abramovich’s chief lieutenant, the club director Marina Granovskaia, were trying to understand what they could and could not do.

At the team’s Stamford Bridge stadium, security officials closed the team shop and blocked visitors from entering the grounds. Elsewhere, the team’s jersey sponsor, the telecommunications company Three, said it was “reviewing our position.”

The freezing of Abramovich’s assets could make it impossible for him to follow through on his previously announced plans to sell Chelsea. Under the new sanctions, the British government will now have complete oversight of that process. The effect would be to heavily diminish any proposed sale price, but it could block a sale entirely since it is unlikely the government would allow such a large transfer of money — Abramovich was said to be seeking more than $2 billion for Chelsea — from being paid to an owner under sanctions.

“Given the significant impact that today’s sanctions would have on Chelsea football club and the potential knock on effects of this, the Government has this morning published a license which authorizes a number of football-related activities to continue at Chelsea,” the British government said in its statement announcing the freezing of Abramovich’s assets. “This includes permissions for the club to continue playing matches and other football related activity which will in turn protect the Premier League, the wider football pyramid, loyal fans and other clubs. This license will only allow certain explicitly named actions to ensure the designated individual is not able to circumvent U.K. sanctions.”

The government later issued a fact sheet on what the sanctions against Abramovich would mean for the team and its fans. Among its bullet points:

  • Chelsea is allowed to incur and pay “reasonable costs necessary for the club to host fixtures at its home ground,” including for security, stewards and catering.

  • The team’s players, coaches and other staff members can continue to receive their salaries, but there will be limits on spending for travel to home and away matches, and such spending will only be available “for players and essential staff.” In practical terms, that could mean less luxurious flights and hotels on trips for games in the Premier League and the Champions League.

  • Fans who already have tickets to Chelsea games, including season-ticket holders, will be allowed to attend and purchase refreshments. But no new tickets can be sold.

  • Broadcasters are permitted to air Chelsea games and also to pay any television revenues to the club. But that money now will be subject to government oversight under the license the team was granted.

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