Pressure is mounting to strip secretive Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich as owner of Chelsea Football Club
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gives new ammunition to the argument that billionaire Roman Abramovich should be stripped of his ownership of Chelsea Football Club, one of the biggest and most successful soccer clubs in Europe.
The notoriously secretive Abramovich, who made his billions in oil and is reportedly close to Vladimir Putin, became the London club’s outright owner in 2003. Since his investment, Chelsea has won 18 major trophies, including two Champions League titles, the most prestigious pan-European competition.
Over that nearly 20-year span, Abramovich has become a celebrity in the English media, and something of a stand-in for the many ultrawealthy Russians who have moved to England in general and London in particular. Earlier this month, The Times reported that £1.5 billion worth of UK property had been purchased by Russians with links to the Kremlin, nearly £430 million of which was in Westminster alone. Many critics have nicknamed the capital “Londongrad.”
The escalating conflict in Ukraine has intensified scrutiny around Abramovich’s wealth and his close relationship to Putin. Last month, The Athletic reported that Chelsea owes Abramovich at least $2 billion right now; Abramovich’s net worth is around $15 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Labour MP Chris Bryant is leading the charge within Parliament to kick Abramovich out of his west London perch atop Chelsea. On Thursday, he said during Business Questions at the House of Commons that he had access to documents from 2019 linking Abramovich to “malign activity.”
In 2021, Abramovich sued the author Catherine Belton for reporting in her book “Putin’s People” that Abramovich had acted “covertly at his [Putin’s] direction” in multiple business deals, including his acquisition of Chelsea. That lawsuit ultimately settled.
Chris Bryant has urged Boris Johnson’s government to seize Abramovich’s UK assets, including Chelsea and his London-based investment company Millhouse LLC, the BBC reports.
“Surely Mr Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country? Surely we should be looking at seizing some of his assets … and making sure that other people who have had tier 1 visas like this are not engaged in malign activity in the UK,” Bryant said, according to The Guardian.
Bryant told MPs that the Home Office document about Abramovich from 2019 suggests the oligarch shouldn’t be allowed to live in the UK. His 15-bedroom mansion, just behind Kensington Palace, and other UK properties have been estimated to be worth more than $250 million.
“As part of HMG’s [Her Majesty’s Government] Russia strategy aimed at targeting illicit finance and malign activity, Abramovich remains of interest to HMG due to his links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices. An example of this is Abramovich admitting in court proceedings that he paid for political influence,” the document reads.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Abramovich was “already facing sanctions,” but he later walked that back, with his spokesperson saying he had “misspoke.” Abramovich was not part of the several series of sanctions announced by Johnson, the largest ever levied by the UK.
Abramovich’s oil wealth has been under scrutiny for years, and in 2018, he withdrew his application for a UK investor visa amid mounting criticism. He’s been using an Israeli passport to get into the country, and even lived a nomadic existence on his fleet of yachts for a while when he was denied entry to the UK.
After he was denied entry in 2018, Abramovich abandoned plans to build a new $1 billion stadium for Chelsea.
The new sanctions and calls to action against Russian money are just the beginning of a likely shake-up in Western Europe stemming from the war.
Political pressure had separately been building for Europe’s top soccer body, the UEFA, to strip Russia of hosting the Champions League final in May, and to cut off its massive sponsorship deal with Gazprom, the Russian state-owned energy giant, with the EU Parliament one of the voices calling for action. After Thursday’s invasion, The Athletic reported that UEFA will move the Champions League Final away from St. Petersburg’s Gazprom Arena.
[This report has been updated with additional information on Chris Bryant’s remarks about Abramovich, Boris Johnson’s statement about potential sanctions, and the fate of the Champions League Final in St. Petersburg.]
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