One of Russia's foremost oligarchs is stepping away from his Premier League club. For now.
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich announced Saturday that he is ceding stewardship of the club to its charitable foundation, a move no doubt related to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting backlash against Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.
The full statement, via Chelsea's website:
During my nearly 20-year ownership of Chelsea FC, I have always viewed my role as a custodian of the Club, whose job it is ensuring that we are as successful as we can be today, as well as build for the future, while also playing a positive role in our communities. I have always taken decisions with the Club’s best interest at heart. I remain committed to these values. That is why I am today giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable Foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC.
I believe that currently they are in the best position to look after the interests of the Club, players, staff, and fans.
Crucially, Abramovich does not appear to have any plans to sell the team. He just seems to be handing over the reins to a trusted subordinate group while pressure mounts against him over his long relationship with Putin.
Roman Abramovich is a big name, in both the Premier League and Putin's circle
Abramovich and the Russian president go way back, to put it simply. The billionaire, who made his fortune in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, actually recommended Putin for his current job to then-president Boris Yeltsin, and the two have been predictably cozy from there. It has been alleged that Abramovich has been allowed to personally select members of Putin's cabinet and open and shut criminal cases.
Abramovich purchased Chelsea back in 2003, the vanguard of international money flooding into the Premier League and transforming the economics of global soccer. He has never been shy about throwing around monstrous sums to elevate his team, and the results since include five Premier League titles, five FA Cup titles and two Champions League titles, most recently winning the 2021 Champions League trophy.
There had been recent calls to strip Abramovich of his Chelsea ownership in light of his ties to Putin (he's not the only Russian oligarch facing such calls of foreign asset seizure), and this move seems to be an attempt to appease his critics until the pressure dies down.
Seemingly in anticipation of such calls to take Chelsea from him, Abramovich reportedly still has a major trump card in the form of a $2 billion loan from him to Chelsea. Should the United Kingdom go after his assets, it's apparently conceivable he could call on the loan and financially ruin Chelsea.
Chelsea supporters demand more clarity from Roman Abramovich
One group not sated by Abramovich's announcement was the Chelsea Supporters' Trust, which quickly released a statement demanding more clarity over control of their team and expressing support for the people of Ukraine:
The Chelsea Supporters’ Trust is deeply saddened and shocked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent loss of life.
We note Mr Abramovich’s statement (26.2.22) and are seeking urgent clarification on what this statement means for the running of Chelsea FC.
The CST board are ready to work with the trustees of The Chelsea Foundation in order to ensure the long-term interests of the club and supporters.
We stand with the people of Ukraine.
Another person standing with Ukraine is reportedly Abramovich's own daughter, who posted a condemnation of Putin and the war on Instagram.
Russia seeing backlash across the sports world
A major consequence of Russia's unprovoked attack on its neighboring country has been its quick transformation into a pariah in the realm of international sports.
In the span of a few days, UEFA has moved its upcoming Champions League final out of Russia, Formula 1 has removed the Russian Grand Prix from its 2022 calendar, multiple national soccer teams have refused to play the country in World Cup qualifiers and the four major boxing organizations have said they will not sanction fights in the country.
With global resentment against Russia already at a high following the Olympic figure skating debacle, many entities have not hesitated to hit back at the country.