LONDON — For Chelsea FC players and coaches, the first snippets of information arrived in text messages and news alerts that pinged their mobile phones as they made their way to a private terminal in London’s Gatwick Airport on Thursday morning.
The British government had frozen the assets of their team’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, as part of a wider package of sanctions announced against a group of Russian oligarchs. The action, part of the government’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was designed to punish a handful of individuals whose businesses, wealth and connections are closely associated with the Kremlin. Abramovich, the British government said, has had a “close relationship” with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for decades.
The order applied to all of Abramovich’s businesses, properties and holdings, but its most consequential – and most publicized – effect hit reigning European soccer champions Chelsea, which began at this very moment. his journey to a Premier League game on Thursday night. in Norwich City.
News reports and government pronouncements slowly filled in some of the gaps: Abramovich’s plans to sell the team were now untenable and on hold; the club was prohibited from selling tickets or merchandise, lest the money revert to its owner; and the team was prohibited – for the time being – from acquiring or selling players in football’s multi-billion dollar commercial market.
And hour after nervous hour, one more thing became clear: Chelsea, one of Europe’s top sides and contenders for another Champions League title this season, were suddenly facing a worrying future marked by austerity, l uncertainty and decadence.
Even as it announced its actions against Abramovich and six other Russian oligarchs, the government said it had taken steps to ensure Chelsea would be able to continue operations and complete their season. To protect the club’s interests, the government said it had issued Chelsea with a license to continue its football-related activities.
The license, which the government says will be under ‘constant review’, will ensure that players and team staff will continue to be paid; that supporters with subscriptions can continue to attend matches; and that the integrity of the Premier League, which is considered an important cultural asset and one of Britain’s most prominent exports, will not be affected.
But the sanctions will put a stranglehold on Chelsea’s spending and seriously undermine its ability to operate at the level it has achieved over the past two decades.
On Thursday, the effort to ensure no money flowed to Abramovich was unfolding in ways big and small. Telecommunications company Three has suspended its shirt sponsorship – a lucrative source of revenue – and asked for its logo to be removed from Chelsea uniforms and its stadium.
At a club-owned hotel near the team’s Stamford Bridge stadium, reception stopped booking rooms and the restaurant closed food service. Around the corner at the official Chelsea team store, business continued as usual until security officials abruptly closed the store. Buyers, who were filling baskets with club merchandise, were told to put everything back and leave.
Moments later, signs were taped to locked entrances. “Due to the latest government announcement, this store will be closed today until further notice,” they read.
An uncertain future awaits him, with penalties affecting everything from the money Chelsea spends on travel to how it distributes the tens of millions of dollars it receives from TV broadcasters.
Chelsea acknowledged their new reality in a statement, but suggested they intended to immediately enter into discussions with the government over the scope of the license granted to the team. “This will include,” the team said, “requesting permission to amend the license to allow the club to operate as normally as possible.”
At the club on Thursday morning, staff members struggled to come to terms with what the government’s actions would mean for them, their jobs and the team. Many club officials, including Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel, a German, and Abramovich’s chief lieutenant, club manager Marina Granovskaia, were still trying to figure out what they could and could not do.
A major deal is not on the table: Abramovich’s asset freeze prevents him, at least in the short term, from following through on his announced plan to sell Chelsea. Under the new arrangement, the UK government will oversee this process. And while he said he wouldn’t necessarily block a sale, the effect would be to sharply lower any proposed sale price, and the proceeds “could not go to the sanctioned individual while subject to sanctions” – leaving Abramovich with little incentive to move forward.
Whatever happens next, nothing will be the same at Chelsea. Since Abramovich arrived as a little-known Russian businessman in 2003, he has spent more money buying talent than almost any other club owner in footballing history, the steady stream of Chelsea players and coaches entering and leaving the club being a feature of his years in charge. Within minutes of the sanctions announcement, however, it quickly became clear that Chelsea would cease to be players in the multi-billion dollar player swap market, unable to acquire new talent, to sell one of its current players and, without the regular support of Abramovich. infusions of her personal fortune, to continue paying the huge salaries of the players she currently employs.
For Chelsea fans too, there was confusion over how and when they could attend games. Although subscriptions remain valid, any new sales are prohibited, including for away matches and, importantly, for all future Champions League matches if the team qualifies for the final rounds of the competition. Chelsea’s next Champions League match, against French champions Lille, is scheduled for Wednesday; a place in the quarter-finals is at stake.
This trip and any future trips outside of London will now be carefully considered after the government announced a per-match limit of 20,000 pounds (around $26,000) in travel costs. These penalties could have been among the talking points as Chelsea players and staff traveled to the private terminal at Gatwick Airport, south London, to board a chartered jet for the court flight to Norwich.
At that time, Tuchel’s phone was buzzing. Tuchel, the coach who last week answered angrily to a flood of questions about Abramovich and the Ukraine at a press conference, probably knew little more than those who bombarded him with questions.
On Thursday, he reportedly tried to focus on the trip to Norwich City, where his side won 3-1, and the one that follows on Sunday, Chelsea’s first home game since their world turned upside down.
In this match, perhaps for the last time in months, Chelsea will play in front of a full house. A sign attached to the entrance to Stamford Bridge said it on Thursday: The home game against Newcastle United is sold out.