Chelsea FC’s multi-billionaire Russian owner Roman Abramovich has come under fire over the last week due to his ties to President Vladimir Putin, with calls to sell and even seize assets of the team coming from members of UK Parliament. Abramovich issued a statement on Saturday, saying that he intends to hand over the “stewardship and care” of the club to its charitable foundation, The Chelsea Foundation. However, his announcement came under immense scrutiny from the sports world, citing the ambiguity of the terms “stewardship and care” as a point of concern. Sky Sports pundits and soccer legends Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville were quick to call out whether handing over “stewardship” was equivalent to ownership and oversight of the club’s day-to-day activities. On Tuesday morning, the charity’s board of trustees were reportedly uncertain of the legality of running the club, as well as expressing an unwillingness to accept the responsibility. The UK’s governing body on charity law, The Charity Commission, requested “information” on the transferring of care of the team on Tuesday morning.
The commission is set to investigate whether such a transfer of power is legal, as well as analyze the board’s liabilities if permitted to take control. Other than perhaps the Donald Sterling saga of 2014 that saw the forced-sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to Steve Ballmer, the compulsory sale of a sports franchise is not something that has occurred in recent memory. The situation will be an interesting one to watch, as if the UK government is to get involved in legally forcing Abramovich to sell or relinquish ownership, that could set a precedent for potentially ousting other owners with questionable political ties, such as Newcastle United’s ownership group funded by the Saudi government’s sovereign wealth fund. The status of Chelsea’s future has become even more muddied, as Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday night that Abramovich was preparing to listen to offers to sell the team this week for the first time nearly 20 years. It certainly appears that Abramovich is trying to get ahead of any potential sanctions that could be imposed on him or the club, as handing over care of the club also seems to be a way to deflect from his shady ties with the Russian president.
All of this comes at a less than ideal time for the players and manager, as Chelsea currently sits third place in the Premier League, and are seeking to repeat as winners of the UEFA Champions League with their Round of 16 second-leg match set for March 16th. Manager Thomas Tuchel lashed out at reporters Tuesday after repeatedly being asked about his bosses’ ties to Putin, saying that he “is not a politician” and pleaded to journalists to “stop asking me these questions”. Clearly, Abramovich’s political connections are now impacting his players and club, and with the sanctions against Russian oligarchs by the UK looming, the future of Chelsea is uncertain. A government action to seize club assets would be disastrous for the team, as clubs like Chelsea spend millions of dollars each summer on some of the world’s top talent, and being restricted from doing that could massively set the club back on the field, not just on the profit margins.
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