When players and coaches from Chelsea F.C. arrived in a VIP terminal at London’s Gatwick Airport on Thursday morning, they received the first pieces of information in the form of text messages and news alerts that were sent to their smartphones as they made their way there.
The British government had blocked the assets of their team’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, as part of a broader set of measures against a group of Russian billionaires that had been revealed earlier this year. A number of people whose enterprises, money, and relationships are intimately tied with the Kremlin were targeted in the operation, which was carried out as part of the government’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a statement, the British government said that Abramovich had had a “tight connection” with Russia’s president Vladimir V. Putin for more than two decades.
The order applied to all of Abramovich’s businesses, properties, and holdings, but its most significant — and high-profile — impact was felt by Chelsea, the reigning European soccer champion, which was at the time beginning its journey to a Thursday night Premier League match against Norwich City at the time of the order.
Some of the gaps were gradually filled in by news stories and official comments, such as: While Abramovich’s plans to sell the team were put on hold, the club was barred from selling tickets or merchandise for fear that any of the money would be returned to Abramovich; and the team was barred from buying or selling players in soccer’s multibillion-dollar trading market, at least for the time being.
Hour by nervous hour, one more thing became clear: Chelsea, one of Europe’s most successful clubs, was suddenly confronted with an ominous future marked by austerity, uncertainty, and decay. Chelsea, one of Europe’s most successful clubs and a contender for another Champions League title this season, was suddenly confronted with an ominous future marked by austerity, uncertainty, and decay.
By Thursday, the campaign to prevent any money from flowing to Abramovich was manifesting itself in a variety of ways, both huge and little. Three stopped its jersey sponsorship, which had been a valuable cash source for the club, and requested that its insignia be removed from both Chelsea’s jerseys and its stadium, according to the club.
Chelsea has an uncertain future, with the fines impacting everything from the money spent on travel to the way in which the tens of millions of dollars it gets from television broadcasters are spent.
Chelsea accepted its new reality in a statement, but indicated that it wanted to immediately begin conversations with the government concerning the breadth of the licence that the club had been given to play in the Premier League. Among the steps the squad will take is to seek approval to change its operating licence, which will enable the club “to resume operations in the most regular manner possible.”
There was also some uncertainty among Chelsea supporters on how and when they might attend games. New sales will not permitted for any future games, including away matches and crucially any future Champions League matches should the club progress to the further stages of the tournament. Season tickets will remain valid, but no new sales will be permitted for any future games. Chelsea’s next Champions League game, against French champion Lille, is scheduled for Wednesday, with a place in the quarterfinals on the line if the Blues succeed.
Tuchel’s phone had begun to ring at this time. Coach Tuchel, who in a press conference last week reacted furiously to a barrage of questions about Abramovich and Ukraine, was probably only slightly better informed than the people asking him the questions.
In order to concentrate on the trip to Norwich City, where his team came away with a 3-1 victory, and the game that will follow on Sunday, Chelsea’s first home game since its world was turned upside down, he would have tried to concentrate on those two games on Thursday.
Chelsea will play in front of a capacity crowd for the first time in months during that game, which may be the last. As a result, a sign at the entrance to Stamford Bridge announced on Thursday that the home match versus Newcastle United had sold out.