Roman Abramovich has transformed Chelsea from financially stricken also-rans to serial winners and global behemoth since buying the west London club from Ken Bates in a £140m deal 15 years ago.
But questions about the Russian billionaire’s future as owner have resurfaced after the Blues called an abrupt halt to their plans to redevelop their Stamford Bridge home on Thursday.
Chelsea’s decision comes amid heightened tensions between Britain and Moscow, following the Salisbury poisoning, and a delay in renewing Abramovich’s UK investor visa.
Read more: Chelsea FC puts £500m stadium plans on hold
The club attributed the move to “the current unfavourable investment climate”. Some observers believe it is a response from Abramovich, who this week took up Israeli citizenship.
“Delaying that visa is a shot across Putin’s bow, and [Abramovich] moving to Israel and deciding not to fund the stadium is definitely firing back, saying ‘can you afford not to have us in your country?’,” believes James Montague, author of The Billionaires Club, a book on the super-rich owners of leading football clubs.
Abramovich’s new Israeli passport allows him to travel to the UK without applying for a visa but, crucially, does not allow him to work or conduct business during the visit.
For matters such as signing contracts or entering into negotiations, he would need to apply for a business visa, which could mean more of the delays he currently faces.
“His two options are: come in on an Israeli passport as a pure visitor and attend football matches. If he were to do anything more than that, he would be at high risk of scrutiny,” said Kamal Rahman, partner and head of immigration at Mishcon de Reya.
“Immigration services would be watching to see whether his activities go beyond what a tourist visa permits him to do and into the realms of what a business visa would be required for. And if he needs to apply for a business visit visa then clearly he may have the same issues as he has had applying for whatever visa he has applied for from Moscow.”
In short, although Abramovich does not need a visa to own Chelsea and even attend games, “he’s going to have to run it from outside the UK”, Rahman added.
“It is genuinely in question whether he can carry on,” Montague added.
“It’s clear that he’s gone to a lot of games – more so than Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City – and he seems to have a lot of affection for the club. But he’s also a hard-headed businessman and if Chelsea becomes a millstone around his neck there’s no reason for him to stay.”
Spiralling stadium cost
There may another factor in the stadium decision: the spiralling projected cost of demolishing Stamford Bridge and rebuilding it as a striking 60,000-seater arena, which has doubled to around £1bn.
“This could be a way of getting out of what would be a ridiculous expense that doesn’t really add anything to the long-term value of Chelsea,” says Montague.
Revenue from tickets and match-day experience has become a smaller part of top clubs’ business plans in recent years as income from broadcasting and commercial deals has rocketed, making stadium projects less appealing.
“You can’t rule out that he’s thinking: ‘how can I get out of this stupidly expensive deal that really doesn’t make any sense?’.”