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Monday, May 23, 2022

Last days of Roman: the week that changed everything at Chelsea | Chelsea

There was no sense that everything was about to unravel so dramatically when the statement from Roman Abramovich dropped at 6.45pm last Saturday, less than 24 hours before Chelsea were due to face Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final.

“Nothing changes,” one source said as the night wore on and everyone tried to make sense of Abramovich’s plans to transfer the care and stewardship of Chelsea to the trustees of the club’s charitable foundation. “It’s the same Chelsea.”

Was it business as usual? A day earlier Thomas Tuchel had admitted he and his players were worried about the uncertainty surrounding Abramovich after a call in parliament for sanctions to be imposed on the oligarch after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The real world had intruded and Abramovich, who bought Chelsea in 2003, was faced with major complications as he contemplated how to preserve his ownership.

Yet there was still no outward hint of panic. Journalists were told that the Russian is a non-political person and, rather than trying to save himself from sanctions, was acting to protect the club from reputational damage caused by the focus on him. The 55-year-old was still the owner, the overall leadership structure remained in place and Chelsea were still insisting they were not for sale.

It was inevitable that Chelsea’s position could not hold. The calls for sanctions increased and Abramovich released another statement on Wednesday, confirming that Chelsea were up for sale 69 minutes before Tuchel’s side were due to begin their FA Cup tie against Luton Town at Kenilworth Road.

Bidders were invited to approach Abramovich, who vehemently denies allegations suggesting he is linked to Vladimir Putin and the Russian state or has done anything to merit being sanctioned. He is in negotiations with a consortium fronted by two billionaires, Todd Boehly and Hansjörg Wyss, and a deal could be agreed by Monday.

It has been extraordinary and no one at Chelsea will forget where they were when the news about Abramovich arrived. “Away dressing room at Luton,” Tuchel said on Friday. “First chair on the right. I knew a little bit before. It was a process of messages. It’s not like we had two weeks of nothing and then suddenly were told: ‘OK, it will be sold.’ I could feel it coming.”

Thomas Tuchel faces the media at Luton, after the announcement that Chelsea were for sale
Thomas Tuchel faces the media at Luton, after the announcement that Chelsea were for sale. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Tuchel, whose side beat Luton 3-2, has not spoken to Abramovich since Wednesday. Yet he rarely does. Tuchel consults with Abramovich’s most trusted director, Marina Granovskaia, and Chelsea’s technical and performance adviser, Petr Cech, who briefed the squad about the situation on Thursday.

Everything has moved at dramatic speed. At the start of the week the question was whether Abramovich’s hopes of transferring stewardship to the foundation’s trustees would work. The plan caught the attention of the Charity Commission and the trustees were uncomfortable with the proposals, especially as there was no prior consultation about them assuming the day-to-day running of Chelsea.

That added to the air of haphazardness. Did Abramovich, who has promised to write off the £1.5bn in loans he has given Chelsea, think it would come to this? After all last month he was on the pitch at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium, celebrating after Chelsea had added to last season’s Champions League triumph by winning the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Chelsea, who lost the Carabao Cup final to Liverpool on penalties, have won 21 trophies under Abramovich. His passion for Chelsea is clear. Strikingly, though, he has not taken long to decide he has had enough. One source said the criticism from politicians had drained Abramovich of his will to fight.

There have been attempts to project a different image of Abramovich, who has not condemned Russia’s actions. On Monday it was reported that Abramovich was involved in peace talks. His statement on Wednesday included a pledge that all net proceeds from any sale would be used “for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine”. The Guardian has since established that the charitable fund Abramovich hopes to create will not be used solely for Ukrainian victims, raising the prospect of money going to Russian soldiers or to their families.

Scepticism has grown. On Tuesday, the Labour MP Chris Bryant told parliament that Abramovich was selling his UK properties in an effort to avoid sanctions. Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour party leader, has pressed Boris Johnson to sanction Chelsea’s owner. The situation is precarious. No action has been taken but it is unlikely that Abramovich would be allowed to sell Chelsea if sanctions were imposed on him, heightening the need for interested parties to move swiftly.

Hansjörg Wyss and Todd Boehly
Hansjörg Wyss and Todd Boehly are the early favourites to buy Chelsea. Composite: Wyss Foundation, Getty

Wyss, an 86-year-old Swiss, and Boehly, who part-owns the LA Dodgers, are the early favourites. It was Wyss who publicised the process on Tuesday, telling the Swiss newspaper Blick that he had been invited to join a consortium looking to buy Chelsea. The only obstacle now is agreeing a fee with Abramovich, who is unlikely to receive offers significantly higher than £2bn.

But what happens if Boehly and Wyss pull out? Sources say there could be 10 interested parties, but there have been whispers about a lack of serious buyers. Sir Jim Ratcliffe has ruled himself out and a spokesperson for Loutfy Mansour has denied that the Egyptian is interested in a takeover. On Friday Turkish reports surfaced claiming that Muhsin Bayrak, the chairman of AB Grup Holding, is in talks with Abramovich. A representative for Bayrak told the Guardian that an offer had been made for the club.

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The only guarantee is there will be more twists and turns. Chelsea, who visit Burnley on Saturday, are stepping into the unknown. It is unclear whether the chairman, Bruce Buck, and Granovskaia will stay under new ownership. Tuchel is not questioning his future, but some things will have to be put on hold. Contract talks with César Azpilicueta, Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen, whose deals expire this summer, could have to be put on ice. How can negotiations continue in these circumstances?

On Thursday an email circulated to Chelsea employees saying that it was still business as usual. Whether anyone believes that is true is another thing altogether.

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