THE SUMMER of 1976 was a very warm one, but the event that made Chelsea fans extremely hot under the collar was the news the club was in dire financial straits and on the brink of extinction. For young fans, it was heartbreaking news, but nobody could really imagine Chelsea Football Club going under. Thankfully they didn’t, but they endured a lost decade before the Blues could really smile again.
The news today that Roman Abramovich, the club’s Russian owner, has been sanctioned by the UK government is even more catastrophic than the headlines of 1976. There is every possibility that, if the war in Ukraine is prolonged and becomes even nastier, Chelsea could become a zombie club, unable to operate, unable to attract a cash injection and banned from selling assets. Abramovich has supported the modern Chelsea for 19 years, pumping in money when the cash flow demanded it, funding big transfers, paying top dollar to the men wearing the famous blue shirts. While the money is there, such a business model can exist unless something unexpected happens.
For years, opposition fans have predicted a collapse into non-league if Abramovich was to suddenly get up and leave, taking his wealth with him. The man himself was probably never likely to do that, but external events were a danger that nobody really factored in. But then, the world never really listens to warnings – the covid pandemic was predicted for years by people at the World Economic Forum, but everyone looked the other way. Roman may have been Russian, but ask any Chelsea loyalist and they would have replied, “yes, but he’s a decent Russian.”
Everyone knows the man or woman on the Moscow omnibus has nothing to do with the ambitions of Vlad Putin, but Russia has become a social pariah. It’s a comical reference, but there’s nothing to laugh about, the world is tip-toeing closer and closer to oblivion.
Therefore, it is difficult to exclude Abramovich from sanctions, not because he’s involved in football, but because his wealth was made within a corrupt, opportunist system and for all his hopping around the world to steer clear of Russia, the company he partly owns could be making the steel needed by the military. Football loves a bit of schadenfreude and Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United fans, among others, will lap it up, but the most staunch Chelsea fan would surely agree that some things are more important than football. It is in extremely bad taste that one pundit has encouraged Thomas Tuchel to quit Chelsea and head for Manchester United.
Of course, the announcement makes for good PR for the UK government – they’re nailing Abramovich, a person they’ve never warmed to, and one they know has had close links with the current enemy of all people. At the same time, they have permitted the club to operate under a license, but how long this will remain effective is anybody’s guess. The club cannot sell new tickets, but season ticket holders can attend games. They cannot sell anything, they cannot spend more than £ 500,000 per game on hosting games and their travel bill cannot exceed £ 20,000. As for the next round of the Champions League, if they get through that is, they may have to be play behind closed doors. The effect on morale at Chelsea should not be underestimated, though, as there could be a very negative impact from all the uncertainty, not to mention the squeeze on finances.
The club’s wage bill is £ 28 million per month, so they will need to draw on cash reserves at some point, and it is not an infinite pot. They could run dry and have no way of replenishing funds. In a worst case scenario, Chelsea could have a cash flow problem that cannot be solved. There is the possibility of contagion, too, with the club’s shirt sponsor Three, suspending its deal.
One can only hope – if you’re a Chelsea fan – that the UK government allows a sale to go ahead, but they’ve made it clear Abramovich will not get a penny of the proceeds. There seems, at this time, Chelsea’s owner will have to write-off more than the £ 1.5 billion loan he didn’t want back. The government will not want to be responsible for sending any club to the wall, so it is likely a solution will be found – the club is looking for some adjustments to the license – before the gates have to be locked. It does seem as though the golden age is over, and although Chelsea fans might consider it harsh, a bit of perspective is needed in this very worrying time for the world.