Abramovich and Chelsea: when will the Roman Empire fall?

So farewell then, Roman Abramovich, soon-to-be former owner of Chelsea FC, wealthiest man in Portugal and Israel – two of the three countries where you have citizenship – and former governor of Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, a planet in the Outer Rim Territories controlled by the Hutt crime families.

Sorry. I’m confusing the Russian Far East with the lawless fringes of the Star Wars universe. Easy mistake. Where was I? Oh, yeah …

Farewell then, and bon voyage as you set sail from Old Blighty on stormy seas, with just a few billion pounds in your jeans pocket and only the armour-plated hull of your £370 million, 533-foot superyacht between you and the briny depths. What will you think about as you gaze through the bullet-proof portholes, play idly with the buttons on the missile detection system, or enjoy an outdoor hot tub made slosh free by the ship’s rotor-based stabilisation gizmo? Perhaps, as smoke from bombed-out apartment buildings in Kyiv and Mariupol blots out the sun, you’ll ponder the name you gave your luxurious vessel: Eclipse.

I can only guess what songs will play in the ship’s discotheque as your party guests land on one of the two helipads. Chelsea anthem Blue Is The Colour, perhaps. (I’m sure the DJ won’t let you hear anything by Pussy Riot, especially not Mother Of God, Drive Putin Away, the ditty which saw the courageous punk activists arrested and prosecuted. Not sure you can dance to it, anyway). No, if you’ll excuse the pun, my money’s on ska classic The Liquidator, the song which booms out before Chelsea home games. It seems appropriate as you move to turn your assets into something more portable than palatial London residences and blue ribbon sporting brands.

Oh, and if there’s a flashing chequerboard dance floor will you feel it your patriotic duty to remove the yellow and blue lights? It might be wise, you never know who’s watching.

Actually, you probably do.

In truth this is all wild speculation. Yes, the 55-year-old oligarch has put Chelsea up for sale (likewise his £150 million, 15-bedroom mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens in London, if reports are to be believed). Yes, he owns that superyacht. Yes, he was recently described by Labour MP Chris Bryant, speaking under parliamentary privilege and quoting from a leaked Home Office report from 2019, as being of interest to the government “due to his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices.” And yes, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has demanded to know why Abramovich hasn’t yet been sanctioned when fellow football club-acquiring Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who held a sizeable share in Arsenal until 2018 and has sponsorship links with Everton, is on the list as of last Thursday.

But at the time of writing Roman Abramovich remains un-sanctioned, while UK government ministers (hello, Dominic Raab!) do their level best to avoid answering questions about why. In fact, it’s thought Abramovich doesn’t even live here anymore. He was in Abu Dhabi on February 12 to watch Chelsea beat Brazilian side Palmeiras and lift the World Club Cup, but it’s five months since he attended a match at the club’s Stamford Bridge ground. So where is he? My money’s on Israel, where the weather’s better, the government’s condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is muted to say the least, and where Abramovich owns a boutique hotel and a £50 million beachside mansion, purchased just ahead of the pandemic.

A man who knows a thing or two about Abramovich and Chelsea is Keith Harris (not that one, he passed away in 2015, though fans of the late ventriloquist will be pleased to learn sidekick Orville the Duck lives on at London’s Grand Order Of Water Rats museum. But that’s another story).

No, this Keith Harris is a storied investment banker and former chairman of the Football League who has advised on no fewer than 33 football club takeovers, among them the acquisitions of Manchester City, Aston Villa, West Ham, Fulham and Newcastle United. In 2003, he helped Chelsea navigate their sale to Abramovich, a deal completed in just a few days. The Russian paid £140 million but, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Harris said the club’s value today is probably around £2.3 billion. Whatever the eventual selling price, Abramovich appears to want it in cash, like a plumber working off-book or that guy who sells puppies out of a car boot in a lay-by. “It’s unusual,” said Harris. “It’s a big, big ask.”

Harris was also of the opinion that, even though there is thought to be at least one interested buyer with pockets deep enough to meet Abramovich’s cash condition, the sale could take time. Quite a lot of time. “One of the questions being asked in the circles I mix in is: ‘Who do you think will own Chelsea at the start of next season’. I think if 10 were asked, eight would say Roman Abramovich.”

Some Chelsea fans might prefer it that way because that putative buyer is Hansjorg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire reported to be fairly uninterested in football and (according to one tabloid report) only interested in it now because of a grudge against Abramovich. His bid, if it comes, is thought to be joint one with American Todd Boehly, part-owner of iconic Los Angeles sports teams the Dodgers (baseball) and Lakers (basketball), and a man whose own offer to buy Chelsea in 2019 was rebuffed by Abramovich. Wyss is not someone who is going to blow millions on players. And what do Americans know about football?

In other words Roman Abramovich may not be going anywhere soon, despite what looks like a hasty attempt to sell up on his part and despite the efforts of parliamentarians. Through his spokespersons he denies ties to the Kremlin and allegations of improper conduct, and as recently as December he settled a libel case against Catherine Belton, formerly Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, and her publisher, Harper Collins. Belton’s 2020 book Putin’s People states that Abramovich was under Putin’s control and bought Chelsea under the Kremlin’s direction. The case ended when the publisher agreed to make revisions recognising that the allegations are not a statement of fact, and to include denials from both club and owner.

In a statement published on the Chelsea website on Wednesday Abramovich said the sale of the club “will not be fast-tracked but will follow due process”. He added: “I have instructed my team to set up a charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale will be donated. The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.”

What those “net proceeds” will be and what he means by “all victims” is anyone’s guess. Invaders as well as defenders? Soldiers as well as civilians? But pressure on him is mounting so watch this space. He remains the UK’s most famous Russian, a man who brought trophy after trophy to that part of West London where blue really is the colour. But if his ship is going to sail, he may be running out of time to find his sea legs. And if it does, the chances are there will be few at the quayside to wave him off.

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