Chelsea facing calls to clarify Roman Abramovich role
Chelsea are facing calls to publicly clarify Roman Abramovich’s role after he said he had handed the club’s “stewardship and care” to trustees of its charitable foundation.
Ministers have been urged to seize billionaire Abramovich’s assets on the basis of his links to the Russian state in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Abramovich issued a statement on Saturday night in which he appeared to relinquish control of the Premier League club, but it is understood he remains the sole owner.
“The words ‘stewardship and care’ are not terms of law,” Danny Davis, a Partner at Mishcon de Reya, told City A.M.
“If the shares of the club haven’t changed hands then there is no change of ownership. It’s positioning to see if they can do the best for their man in the event he is sanctioned.
“It looks like he is putting distance between himself and the club. It looks as basic as that.
“Is his legal team right that it makes his shares in the club ringfenced? I don’t think you’ll find anyone who knows the answer.
“If I was a government lawyer I think I’d go to the club and say ‘what is stewardship, what do you mean?’.”
Abramovich’s statement made reference to the Chelsea Foundation’s trustees, who include Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck, the club’s finance director Paul Ramos and Chelsea Women’s manager Emma Hayes.
Former Sport Minister Hugh Robertson, anti-discrimination campaigner Piara Powar and lawyer John Devine complete the board.
“In a legal context stewardship means no more than the job of supervising or taking care of something, in other words the job of ‘caretaker’,” said Stephen Taylor Heath, head of sports law at JMW Solicitors.
“The Football Association and Premier League have always been anxious to establish who is in actual control of a football club when presented with a separate legal entity as the proposed owners.
“The most recent example of this is in relation to the takeover of Newcastle United when the Premier League sought to establish whether the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF) was in actual control.
“Should the government decree that Abramovich should not be in control of the club the Premier League would immediately have to analyse whether ownership of the club has in fact been transferred to the trust.”
Neither Chelsea nor Abramovich, 55, have commented on the ownership situation beyond Abramovich’s 111-word statement.
It is understood, however, that Buck and Chelsea directors Marina Granovskaia and Eugene Tenenbaum – all long-time Abramovich associates – and chief executive Guy Laurence will continue to run the club on a day-to-day basis.
Sources close to the club also insisted the west London outfit were not for sale, despite recent reports of interest from the US.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that Chelsea owes more than £1.5bn to Abramovich’s UK-based holding company Fordstam Limited.
That debt, which has fuelled the club’s rise to five-time Premier League winners and two-time European champions during the Russian’s 19-year tenure, raises questions about their future solvency if his assets were to be frozen or seized.
“There is a possibility that Abramovich is in fact saying that the trust is to act as his de facto nominee on the board,” added Taylor Heath.
“In this regard it would be prudent for the trust to consider at this stage whether in fact it should even accept the concept of acting as stewards of the club on behalf of Abramovich on the basis that may in fact compromise their position.
“In the statement Abramovich says that he believes the trust has the best interests of the club at heart as he does. The authenticity of that statement will be brought into sharp focus should the situation arise where the interest of the club may conflict with the interest of Abramovich.
“What if Abramovich were to seek to call in his loans? What if the club were to seek to take steps to sever legal ownership?
“Clearly the club and the trust itself will need to elaborate on Mr Abramovich‘s statement to clarify the legal situation.”
The Premier League declined to comment.