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Roman Abramovich cedes ‘stewardship’ of Chelsea FC to charitable foundation

Roman Abramovich said he was ceding day-to-day management of Chelsea football club, as Russia’s assault on Ukraine leads to calls for targeted western sanctions on the elite group of oligarchs with links to president Vladimir Putin.

The Russian-Israeli businessman announced on Saturday that he would relinquish the running of the English Premier League team to its charitable foundation.

Abramovich was not on a list of Russian individuals targeted this week by UK economic sanctions, despite calls from at least one Labour member of parliament that his assets should be seized.

His ownership of Chelsea has made Abramovich an unlikely household name in English football and beyond, while also serving as a stark and early example of how Russia’s elite sought to snap up trophy assets in the UK.

“He’s really doing it to stop the club becoming hostage to anti-Russian sanctions, which are going to be around for a while now,” a friend of the billionaire told the FT.

The announcement does not mean that Chelsea is for sale but is intended to blunt concerns that have gripped the club, its coach and players since the war began earlier this week, according to people close to the situation.

“During my nearly 20-year ownership of Chelsea FC, I have always viewed my role as a custodian of the Club,” Abramovich said. “I have always taken decisions with the Club’s best interest at heart.”

“That is why I am today giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC,” he added.

Bruce Buck, an American who is the club’s chair and who has worked closely with Abramovich for years since his time as a senior lawyer in the London office of US legal firm Skadden Arps, declined to comment.

The war in Ukraine has triggered the beginnings of a western sporting boycott of Russia. Earlier this week, the Champions League final, the biggest game in European club football, was moved from St Petersburg to Paris.

This season’s Russian Formula One Grand Prix has been cancelled. The International Olympic Committee has urged sporting bodies to stop holding events in Russia or its close ally Belarus. Other sporting groups have withdrawn or begun to re-evaluate sponsorships from Russian companies.

Buyers have been circling Chelsea for years, and in 2018, Abramovich appointed US merchant bank Raine to put a value on the team after multiple interested buyers made approaches to acquire it.

Earlier that year, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire founder of chemicals group Ineos, withdrew a bid after being cited a sale price in excess of £2bn, according to people with knowledge of the talks. Private equity group Silver Lake also showed interest that year.

Abramovich’s Fordstam entity, through which he owns Chelsea, has accumulated losses of almost £1.1bn through June 2021. Fordstam has close to £1.5bn in debt in the form of loans from Abramovich. In theory, he could call in the debt, which would need to be repaid within 18 months.

Abramovich’s wealth transformed Chelsea into one of the most powerful teams in global football, spending hundreds of millions of pounds on superstar players and coaches.

Under his ownership, the club has twice won the Champions League, among numerous major titles. As recently as February, he celebrated on the pitch with players after Chelsea won the Fifa Club World Cup tournament in Abu Dhabi.

His fortune helped Chelsea revolutionise football on and off the pitch, creating a domestic rival to the then-dominant Manchester United and ushering in a new era of big money foreign owners in the Premier League.

Abramovich earned his fortune in Russia’s turbulent 1990s by acquiring privatised oil and gas assets from the state, then selling them back to the Kremlin at a large profit. He owns an estate on the so-called Billionaire’s Row in Kensington Palace Gardens and, together with partner Alexander Abramov, controls London-listed steelmaker Evraz.

In 2018, Abramovich withdrew his UK visa renewal application after authorities delayed its processing following the nerve agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. He remained active in club affairs but preferred to watch most of Chelsea’s matches on TV, according to friends. The oligarch subsequently became an Israeli citizen later that year and obtained a Portuguese passport in 2021.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, his daughter Sofia, 27, shared a post on Instagram that read: “Putin wants a war with Ukraine,” according to screenshots posted on social media. “The biggest and most successful lie of Kremlin’s propaganda is that most Russians stand with Putin.”

On Saturday, Garage, the Moscow contemporary art museum he co-founded with his former partner Dasha Zhukova, said in a statement that it would “stop work on all exhibitions until the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased”.

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