Government Warns It’s “Up In The Air” Whether Chelsea Can Finish The Season And They Must Find A New Owner By Summer
Chelsea's captain Cesar Azpilicueta celebrates his side's win at Lille which sent them through to the next round of the UEFA Champions League (Alamy)
The board at Chelsea Football Club are under pressure to find new owners as they cannot go into the new season with Roman Abramovich at the helm after he was sanctioned following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A government source says it is still “up in the air” as to whether the club will be able to finish this season amid a row over the special licence they have been granted to continue operating.
Under the terms of the asset freeze placed on Abramovich over his alleged links to Russian president, Vladimir Putin, all operations at Chelsea should have been suspended as soon as it was enacted.
A permit has been issued in conjunction with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to allow the men’s and women’s teams to keep playing, but it means no new or additional tickets can be purchased, and only fans with existing season tickets can watch them play.
Earlier this week, Chelsea sparked outrage with a statement requesting to play its FA Cup match away against Middlesbrough behind closed doors “for matters of sporting integrity”, arguing it would have been unfair to hold the match without their usual full complement of travelling supporters.
They later retracted the call, but a senior government source told PoliticsHome the intervention suggested that for those at the top of the club it has “not sunk in that they are owned by a sanctioned person,” and that they are lucky to still be able to play games at all.
However, the source said the special licence was granted to largely protect the Premier League from the fallout of Chelsea going out of business, arguing that the “whole football pyramid would have collapsed” given the knock-on effect on broadcast rights and the financial implications.
“They don’t seem to understand the government stepped in to prevent that,” they added. The source believed this disconnect explained the club’s “rash” comments this week, when Chelsea appeared to have been briefing the media about players being forced to travel by coach, rather than private jet, because of a £20,000 limit placed on travel.
PoliticsHome understands the figure for the travel costs limit was chosen by the Treasury’s sanctions unit, but was effectively plucked out of the air because government officials were not able to have conversations with the club about the true costs, because the process had to be conducted in secret.
DCMS officials are now engaged in a dialogue with Chelsea to help the club to properly finance their upcoming games, which have been complicated further by the team drawing Real Madrid in the next stage of the Champions League, necessitating costly international travel next month.
But the department has to update the conditions of the licence every time they have to make such changes, and the re-drafting of the permit under section 64 of the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 has to be done in a way that means no money can make its way to Abramovich, a situation which is entirely unprecedented in top flight football.
It is understood there will eventually be a scheme run by the Premier League to deal with ongoing ticket sales and other operational matters so that the process is not operated solely by DCMS, but a source said “it’s going to be rough”, and Chelsea’s fans will have to accept things won’t be back to normal until the club is sold.
The deadline for bids to buy Chelsea passed at 9pm on Friday, and the process will now see those formally interested cut down to three by the American investment bank put in charge of the process by Abramovich.
The bank will then relay the offers to the Chelsea board, and then to Abramovich – if one is accepted then they then contact DCMS, who decides if the offer is permitted under the sanctions regime. Only then will a special licence be granted to complete the sale.
The senior government source said they have no preference on who the buyer is, but they are urging Chelsea to get on with things.
They said Chelsea cannot go into next season, which starts in early August, with Abramovich as owner, and “they can’t even get through the summer” with him in charge, as the sanctions mean they cannot buy and sell players, with the government very reluctant to get involved in how the club is run in that way.
“They will be allowed to finish the season so that the league doesn’t fall apart, but they must sell,” they added.
A DCMS insider also warns if the issue is unresolved, the sanctions regime could create contractual issues with players who will be able to walk away from the club and sign elsewhere.
The situation at Stamford Bridge has sent shockwaves through football, and reignited questions about the sorts of people who are allowed to own teams.
Ministers are being urged to use this "moment of reckoning" for the Premier League, as former player and Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville put it in an interview with Sky News’ Beth Rigby on Thursday, to increase transparency and tighten up the tests for who is deemed a “fit and proper person”.
Sports minister Nigel Huddleston told a select committee this week that “we are at a turning point in English football”, but there is criticism that the conclusions of a review led by former sports minister Tracey Crouch last year are yet to be implemented.
One of the key recommendations was to set up an independent regulator with new powers over ownership tests, and that those tests could be revisited during an owner’s tenure.
Tim Farron, the former Liberal Democrat leader and campaigner on football governance, said ongoing ownership tests are crucial because someone “can become an unfit and improper person” over the years and felt there needed to be a mechanism to look again at someone’s credentials.
Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, said the Chelsea ownership issue “is just the latest crisis in football governance”.
“The government has had the fan-led review recommendations for months, yet even when faced with the potential collapse of one of the Premier League’s most successful teams, they are still dragging their feet on implementing its recommendations,” she said.
Powell told PoliticsHome that Labour has been calling for football governance reform for years, and believed DCMS should urgently bring forward the recommendations in Crouch’s review “including stronger owner and directors’ tests, and an independent regulator in statute”.
Farron agreed that now was the time to move forward with proposals for an independent regulator.
“This is a moment where those very powerful people who would push back against this will be at their weakest, they'll find it harder to argue back given what's currently going on,” he said.
“Whereas if we just let it hang on for a bit, then the momentum, the impetus for change disappears.
“And that's my worry. You've got to seize the moment.”
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