The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chelsea’s oligarch owner is selling. Will scrutiny of other Premier League owners follow?

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has said he will sell the team. (John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters)
11 min

NEW YORK — When Chris Bryant stood up in Parliament on Feb. 24 to push for action amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he wasn’t thinking much about English soccer. Bryant, a member of Parliament representing the Welsh constituency of the Rhondda, had long been a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his orbiting oligarchs. Now, Bryant said, he had new reasons to be suspicious of those oligarchs’ influence in the United Kingdom.

“Somebody,” he said, “gave me some leaked documents.”

Dating from 2019, the documents were from the Home Office, the U.K. government body responsible in part for immigration and crime. They dealt with Roman Abramovich, the owner of English Premier League powerhouse Chelsea and probably the country’s most famous oligarch. “Abramovich remains of interest to [the U.K. government] due to his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practice,” the document said.

“That’s nearly three years ago,” Bryant said of the documents that day in the Commons. “And yet remarkably little has been done. Surely Mr. Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country?”

Last week, Abramovich announced he was putting Chelsea up for sale. Since he bought the club in 2003, Chelsea has won 19 major trophies. That success has come at a cost of roughly 1.5 billion pounds (almost $2 billion) of Abramovich’s personal fortune. A recent financial report from the club said “the company is reliant on Fordstam Limited,” an Abramovich-controlled holding company that owns Chelsea, “for its continued financial support.”

Abramovich made his money after the fall of the Soviet Union by acquiring billions of dollars of oil and other Russian state assets via self-admittedly corrupt means. Like his fellow oligarchs, he’s widely understood as a cog in a kleptocracy overseen by Putin. As Abramovich rushes to sell Chelsea, the message is clear: Putin’s cronies are no longer safe from scrutiny.

In the Premier League, that could raise questions for clubs beyond Chelsea. Since Abramovich’s arrival, the Premier League has only become friendlier to brazen, spend-happy ownership groups. Whether it’s the Saudi Arabian wealth fund that owns Newcastle or the United Arab Emirates royal family member who owns Manchester City, the story’s the same: No matter where your money comes from, if you spend and win, you become beloved.

But now, under the threat of sanctions, Abramovich is fleeing the Premier League. Undoubtedly, his decades of success changed the sport. Could the sudden and ignominious end of his Chelsea days change it again?

Speaking hurriedly while stepping out from a recent session of the Commons, Bryant clarified that he was not targeting the high-profile Abramovich or his internationally beloved club. It was a practical thing; he just happened to get his hands on documents relating to Abramovich.

In response to his criticism of Putin, Bryant has received online abuse for years, including bot-generated attacks and homophobic abuse. Now a new category has popped up, Bryant said: “Genuine lovers of Chelsea Football Club who can’t imagine Roman doing anything wrong.”

To Bryant, that proves his point. “In the U.K.,” he said, “we’ve been infiltrated by Russian money, and we’ve gotten used to it.”

Trophies over everything

Since buying Chelsea, Abramovich has been a famously distant figure, seemingly happy to do little else but spend money and pose for photos hoisting trophies. That distance has only increased since 2018, when Abramovich gave up an attempt to renew his Tier 1 investor visa and lost legal residence in England.

Over the past week, though, Abramovich has been strangely ubiquitous. Presumably to get ahead of potential U.K. sanctions and the possible freezing of his assets, Abramovich is furiously trying to dump Chelsea. Potential bidders have been told they have until March 15 to put in their offers. Hansjoerg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire and potential buyer, told the newspaper Blick that Abramovich is “trying to sell all his villas in England” and “wants to get rid of Chelsea quickly.”

But it’s not just the fire sale bringing Abramovich new attention. On Feb. 28, a spokesperson for Abramovich claimed the oligarch was aiding talks between the Russians and the Ukrainians. Alexander Rodnyansky, a Ukrainian film producer, later clarified that he was the one who had recruited Abramovich to find a “peaceful resolution,” allegedly with the approval of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In a statement about the sale, Abramovich said he was writing off the 1.5 billion pounds in loans that he had made to Chelsea and that the “net proceeds” of the sale would go to “the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.” The Guardian later heard from a “key figure” that “the fund is intended for all victims,” meaning the money “could be used to help Russian soldiers hurt in the war.”

This is not the first time Abramovich’s philanthropy has helped serve as self-protection. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, is one of several high-profile Israeli institutions that signed a letter to the U.S. ambassador to Israel asking that Abramovich, a major donor, be spared sanctions.

But above all, Abramovich’s success with Chelsea has inoculated him. In his statement announcing the club’s impending sale, Abramovich said, “This has never been about business nor money for me, but about pure passion for the game and club.” Before the team’s match against Burnley on Saturday, during a minute of recognition for Ukraine, a group of Chelsea fans chanted Abramovich’s name.

“The loyalty that fans show to their club is incomparable with anything,” soccer journalist Flo Lloyd-Hughes said. “It’s blind loyalty. There are often few variables, nuances or distractions. It is all or nothing. This is exactly why ‘sports washing’ is such a lucrative tool and why football is prime for it.”

Boycotting Chelsea?

After the invasion, the national teams of multiple countries, including Poland and Sweden, announced they would refuse to play upcoming World Cup qualifying matches against Russia. After dragging its feet, FIFA suspended Russia from World Cup qualifying. That move raised a question about where threats of boycotts in global soccer should begin and end.

“If you’re going to refuse to play Chelsea,” journalist Barry Glendenning recently said on Football Weekly, a popular podcast, “then you better refuse to play Newcastle, because their owners are bombing the s--- out of Yemen in a conflict that doesn’t get as much publicity.”

Newcastle’s majority owner is the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia; the chairman of the PIF is Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince. The Premier League has said it has been assured that the PIF and the Saudi state are separate entities.

But Glendenning was arguing the realist point of view: Acting with a sense of morality should mean boycotting teams far beyond Chelsea. “We’re going to be left with a very, very small league that will be over in about a month,” Glendenning said, “because there aren’t too many Premier League clubs who can say ‘Yeah, well, our noses are completely clean.’ ”

Last spring, major clubs from England, Spain and Italy announced plans to form a breakaway group called the Super League. Fans protested, and the Super League crumbled. In its wake, the U.K. government tasked a member of Parliament, Tracey Crouch, with investigating the state of English soccer.

Her report included common-sense proposals to better the sport. Among them: pushing clubs up for sale to ask a simple question of a proposed owner. Are they “of good character such that they should be allowed to be the custodian of an important community asset”?

When asked if the hard truths of the Abramovich story might lead to change in the way the Premier League conducts its business, Bryant said: “If only. I’m pessimistic. It took quite a long time to persuade FIFA [to suspend Russia]. A lot of sporting bodies, they see dollar signs everywhere — or ruble signs. Not that the ruble is worth anything.”

Unwittingly, Bryant made himself a target of Chelsea fans who see him as a cause of the end of the trophy-filled Abramovich era. For what it’s worth, Bryant doesn’t have a Premier League rooting interest. “I’m not a football man. I’m a Welshman, so my main interest is rugby,” he said. “But more important than any of that, I’m an anti-corruption man.” With that, Bryant hung up and headed back to the Commons.

Love in the pub

Last week, on the day that Abramovich announced he was selling Chelsea, the club was outside London playing a match against Luton Town, a club in the second tier of English soccer.

Luton Town is owned by a fan-led consortium that, in 2007, donated 50,000 shares, good for about 1 percent ownership, to an organization called the Luton Town Supporters’ Trust. It also gave the trust the club’s image rights. Effectively, it granted the trust real leverage in the club’s future decision-making process. The trust is funded by members’ fees, which range from 5 to 10 pounds per year, and works to ensure that the best interests of Luton Town fans are represented.

Speaking to The Post before the match, Luton Town Supporters’ Trust media officer Kevin Harper said: “I would urge every supporter of every football club to always think of the future. What is going to happen when this particular owner — whether it’s Abramovich or someone else — leaves? While I wouldn’t begrudge Chelsea fans enjoying their success — they are a fantastic side — I would always give off that caution. The now is fantastic, but it doesn’t mean much in the future.”

During the match, a small group of Chelsea fans gathered in Manhattan at the Football Factory, a basement bar across from the Empire State Building full of club scarves and shirts. In his better days, Abramovich, who once owned $90 million worth of townhouses a short subway ride away, took in a few matches at the Football Factory.

Jack Keane, proprietor of the bar, said every time Abramovich came in, “I was very impressed with the gentleman. He didn’t say much, but he was very obliging to every Chelsea fan that was here. He waited until everybody had a photograph with him. His security were telling people, ‘Don’t put an arm around him.’ And he would go, ‘No, that’s okay.’ ” Abramovich wouldn’t order a drink, but Keane would always insist he have a bottle of Heineken.

With the threat of sanctions looming, it’s unlikely Abramovich will be back at the Football Factory — or in the United States at all — anytime soon.

Chelsea fans, exclusively male at this gathering, busied themselves grumbling as their club trailed 2-1 at halftime. One snapped, “I’m from the old hooligan days — we don’t talk to journalists.” By the time the game ended in a 3-2 Chelsea win, though, they were cheerful enough to chat about Abramovich, offering a window into the power of sports washing and the peril of depriving fans of a winning product.

“He’s a club legend, and he’s been very good for the Premier League,” a 50-something man named Arthur said. “The truth is, I feel sad that Abramovich is being scapegoated. He’s not taking back the enormous amount of money” he put into Chelsea, “and the proceeds are going to the victims of the war.”

To Arthur, Abramovich’s vague statement of support for “victims of the war” was equivalent to a castigation of the Russian invasion. “He’s being dragged through the mud,” he said. “How many people are speaking out against Putin? It’s not a wise decision for your health.”