LONDON — For Chelsea FC’s players and coaches, the first snippets of information arrived in the text messages and news alerts that pinged their cellphones as they made their way to a private terminal at London’s Gatwick Airport on Thursday morning.
The British government had frozen the assets of their team’s Russian owner, Roman Abramovich, as part of a wider set of sanctions announced against a group of Russian oligarchs. The action, part of the government’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was designed to punish a handful of individuals whose businesses, wealth and connections are closely associated with the Kremlin. Abramovich, the British government said, has enjoyed a “close relationship” with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, for decades.
The order applied to all of Abramovich’s businesses, properties and holdings, but its most consequential — and most high-profile — effect hit Chelsea, the reigning European soccer champion, which was at that very moment beginning its journey to a Thursday night Premier League match at Norwich City.
News reports and government statements slowly filled in some of the gaps: Abramovich’s plans to sell the team were now untenable, and on hold; the club was forbidden from selling tickets or merchandise, less any of the money feed back to its owner; and the team was prohibited — for the moment — from acquiring or selling players in soccer’s multibillion-dollar trading market.
And hour by nervous hour, one more thing became clear: Chelsea, one of Europe’s leading teams and a contender for another Champions League title this season, was suddenly facing a worrisome future marked by austerity, uncertainty and decay.
Even as it announced its actions against Abramovich and six other Russian oligarchs, the government said it had taken steps to ensure Chelsea would be able to continue its operations and complete its season. To protect the club’s interests, the government said, it had issued Chelsea a license allowing it to continue its soccer-related activities.
The license, which the government said would be under “constant review,” will ensure that the team’s players and staff will continue to be paid; that fans holding season tickets can continue to attend games; and that the integrity of the Premier League, which is considered an important cultural asset and one of Britain’s most high-profile exports, will not be affected.
But the sanctions will put a stranglehold on Chelsea’s spending and seriously undermine its ability to operate at the levels it has for the past two decades.
By Thursday, the effort to ensure that no money flows to Abramovich was playing out in ways large and small. The telecommunications company Three suspended its jersey sponsorship — a lucrative revenue stream — and asked that its logo be removed from Chelsea’s uniforms and its stadium.
At a club-owned hotel near the team’s Stamford Bridge stadium, the front desk stopped booking rooms and the restaurant shut down food and beverage service. Around the corner, at the official Chelsea team store, business continued as usual until security officials abruptly closed the shop. Shoppers, who had been filling baskets with club merchandise, were told to put everything back and leave.
Moments later, signs were taped to the locked entrances. “Due to the latest government announcement this store will be closed today until further notice,” they read.
An uncertain future awaits, with the sanctions affecting everything from the money Chelsea spends on travel to how it dispenses the tens of millions of dollars it receives from television broadcasters.
Chelsea acknowledged its new reality in a statement, but suggested it intended to immediately enter into discussions with the government about the scope of the license the team had been granted. “This will include,” the team said, “seeking permission for the license to be amended in order to allow the club to operate as normal as possible.”
At the club on Thursday morning, staff members were struggling to come to terms with what the government’s actions would mean for them, their jobs and the team. Many club officials, including Chelsea’s coach, Thomas Tuchel, a German, and Abramovich’s chief lieutenant, the club director Marina Granovskaia, were still trying to understand what they could and could not do.
One major deal is off the table: The freezing of Abramovich’s assets makes it impossible — at least in the short term — for him to follow through on his announced plans to sell Chelsea. Under the new arrangement, the British government will have oversight of that process. And while it said it would not necessarily block a sale, the effect would be to heavily diminish any proposed sale price, and the proceeds “could not go to the sanctioned individual while he is subject to sanctions” — leaving Abramovich little incentive to move forward .
Whatever happens next, nothing will be the same at Chelsea. Since Abramovich arrived as a little-known Russian businessman in 2003, he has lavished more money on buying talent than almost any other club owner in soccer history, with Chelsea’s constant flow of players and coaches in and out of the club being a hallmark of his years in charge. In the minutes after the sanctions were announced, though, it quickly became apparent that Chelsea would cease to be a player in the multibillion-dollar player trading market, unable to acquire new talent, to sell any of its current players and, without Abramovich’s regular infusions of his personal fortune, to continue to pay the huge salaries of the players it currently employs.
For Chelsea fans, too, there was confusion about how and when they could attend games. While season tickets will remain valid, any new sales are prohibited, including to away matches and, crucially, any future Champions League games should the team advance to the later rounds of the competition. Chelsea’s next Champions League game, at the French champion Lille, is set for Wednesday; a berth in the quarterfinals is at stake.
That trip and any future travel outside London will now be carefully scrutinized after the government announced a per-game limit of 20,000 pounds (about $26,000) in travel expenses. Those penalties might have been among the discussion points as Chelsea’s players and staff members traveled to the private terminal at Gatwick Airport, south of London, to board a chartered jet for the short flight to Norwich.
By then, Tuchel’s phone was buzzing. Tuchel, the coach who last week responded angrily to a stream of questions about Abramovich and Ukraine at a news conference, probably knew little more than those who were peppering him with questions.
On Thursday, he would have been trying to focus on the trip to Norwich City, where his team won, 3-1, and on the one that will follow on Sunday, Chelsea’s first home game since its world turned upside down.
At that game, perhaps for the final time in months, Chelsea will play in front of a full house. A sign attached to the entrance of Stamford Bridge said as much on Thursday: The home game against Newcastle United is sold out.