On a wet night at the compact, old-fashioned stadium of Luton Town, Romelu Lukaku poked in the goal 12 minutes from full-time that restored Chelsea’s sense of hierarchy. The Club World Cup winners and Champions League holders had trailed twice to the second-tier club on the way to a 3-2 win. Their most costly footballer, Lukaku, had been picked in a mix-and-match XI after starting the two, important previous fixtures only as a substitute.
If that was all slightly topsy-turvy, it was nowhere near as unsettling as the announcement, not long before the kick-off of Tuesday’s FA Cup tie, that the individual who has owned Chelsea since 2003, Roman Abramovich, is actively seeking the sale of the club. Abramovich has been willing to listen to offers for most of the last four years, but circumstances directly related to the military invasion by Russia, Abramovich’s native country, of Ukraine, have added urgency to his distancing himself from two decades of transformative influence and vast financial support of Chelsea.
Buyers are being sounded out, with a view, according to parties involved in brokering the would-be sale, to a quick transfer of ownership. Abramovich announced that the estimated £1.5 billion in loans that he has provided to the club would not be repayable by new owners and that net proceeds from the sale of a club he bought for £140m almost 20 years ago would be channelled to relief and recovery projects in Ukraine.
Whoever takes over Chelsea, the club will change the way it operates. There is certainly a market for the leading London club in football’s most globally popular domestic competition, the Premier League, but the potential for growth that likely investors would seek must be mapped out around certain hurdles. An initial, ambitious asking price of close to £4bn is a very high hurdle indeed.
Chelsea have a glamorous address in one of the wealthiest districts of London. But the stadium is relatively small for a modern superclub, at just over 40,000. That impacts on the matchday revenue, and the obstacles to expanding the site, or relocating to a new stadium with bigger grandstands were a source of long-term frustration to Abramovich. When the INEOS Group, now owners of French club Nice, explored a possible purchase of Chelsea in 2019, the stadium issues were deemed significant. The group’s CEO, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, said the club were “overvalued”, at a price then set at closer to £2.5bn.
Abramovich has been a unique sort of patron. He bankrolled marquee signings, year after year, and authorised the sort of player salaries that helped lurch a club who had not won the English league for 50 years into a superpower with five Premier Leagues and two Champions League titles. The ‘brand’ grew with that, but the need for Abramovich’s personal backing remained. Chelsea’s last published accounts revealed losses of over £140m.
Chelsea player ratings in FA Cup win over Luton
On the up side, the club developed an excellent academy, and fetched significant fees and profit from the sale of players nurtured there. Two seasons ago, Chelsea provided a glimpse of what they were capable of without major, annual forays in the transfer market. A Fifa-imposed ban on registering new players meant a summer transfer window without new recruits. It put a greater emphasis on home-grown players. Chelsea, under Frank Lampard’s management, finished in the Premier League’s top four, the key requirement given that it brings Champions League participation.
But as manager Thomas Tuchel, who replaced Lampard last year, acknowledged, the Abramovich model is one Chelsea have become so used to that change poses many awkward questions. “I can only think about Chelsea with Roman Abramovich,” said Tuchel on hearing of the proposed sale. “It is very hard for me. It has not sunk in yet.”
Abramovich said in his statement announcing the potential sale that “it will not be fast-tracked,” but in an insecure political climate, where British parliamentarians push for punitive sanctions against the UK interests and properties of Russians linked to the government of Vladimir Putin — Abramovich denies any links — potential buyers detect a haste in the seller.
When the circumstances around a club’s ownership change abruptly, employees become acutely aware they are, at bottom line, commodities.
Lukaku could tell his teammates all about that. A year ago, he was firing Inter Milan towards their first Italian title in more than a decade, to be then told that economic crises affecting the Milan club’s stakeholders in China meant he had to be sold.
The 28-year-old striker became Abramovich’s most expensive signing, at just under £100m, for a Chelsea who, in the middle years of the Abramovich era, had already signed Lukaku as a teenager and then loaned him out and sold him in his early 20s. Lukaku’s has been a strange sort of journey in, out and back again to a club run according to its own logic. Whatever happens next, the rules will be different.