The UK government on Thursday seized Chelsea Football Club as it imposed tougher sanctions on Russian owner Roman Abramovich.
The club's assets were frozen as the UK cracked down on seven oligarchs in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The move means that the sale of the club has been put on hold after Abramovich confirmed last week that he was putting Chelsea on the market 19 years after buying it.
Team activities from selling new tickets to signing players were instantly restricted. The merchandise store at the Stamford Bridge stadium in west London was rapidly closed with a sign on the doors telling supporters it was “due to the latest government announcement”.
The unprecedented government measures placed on a Premier League team mean Chelsea can operate only under a special “Russia Regulations” licence until May 31 that allows it to keep playing, including Thursday night's match at Norwich.
“While the current licence does not permit the sale of the club at this time, the government is open to a sale of the club and would consider an application for a new license to allow for a sale," the government said. “Proceeds from any sale could not go to the sanctioned individual while he is subject to sanctions.”
Chelsea said it will be “seeking permission for the licence to be amended in order to allow the club to operate as normal as possible.” The Premier League said it was working with Chelsea and authorities “to ensure the season will proceed as planned and in line with the government’s intention.”
The government called Abramovich a “pro-Kremlin oligarch” who is worth more than £9 billion ($12bn), and should be punished due to his association with Vladimir Putin. Abramovich was also linked with “destabilising ... undermining and threatening" Ukraine.
Abramovich, whose fortune was made in oil and aluminium during the chaotic years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, has not condemned Russia's activity in Ukraine in two statements.
The ripples are being felt at Chelsea, where Abramovich has pumped more than £1.5bn in over 19 years, transforming the team into a force in European football.
Anyone with tickets until the end of the season in May can keep on going to matches but no new tickets can be purchased, which affects the ability of any away fans to go to Stamford Bridge. The club also has to stop selling merchandise at its shop.
Staff, including players, can continue to be paid. The club's wage bill was almost £28m a month in the most recent accounts.
Top 32 signings under Abramovich
The club has been effectively placed under a transfer ban since it cannot spend on registering new players, while there are doubts over its ability to offer new contracts.
Only £500,000 can be spent on staging each match at Stamford Bridge, including on security and catering. A maximum of £20,000 can be spent on travel to matches. Chelsea play in France at Lille in the Champions League next week.
Telecoms company Three announced on Thursday it was suspending sponsorship of the club, including the removal of its logo from shirts and from around Stamford Bridge until further notice.
“In light of the government’s recently announced sanctions, we have requested Chelsea Football Club temporarily suspend our sponsorship of the club, including the removal of our brand from shirts and around the stadium until further notice," Three said in a statement.
“We recognise that this decision will impact the many Chelsea fans who follow their team passionately.
"However, we feel that given the circumstances, and the Government sanction that is in place, it is the right thing to do."
Chelsea completed the set of major trophies under Abramovich by winning the Club World Cup last month, after two Champions League titles and five Premier Leagues under his ownership.
These sanctions are about “depriving Abramovich of benefiting from his ownership of the club,” Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries tweeted. “I know this brings some uncertainty, but the Government will work with the league and clubs to keep football being played while ensuring sanctions hit those intended. Football clubs are cultural assets and the bedrock of our communities. We’re committed to protecting them.”
The news comes as New York Jets owner Woody Johnson and a private consortium from Saudi Arabia are said to have shown an interest in buying the club, which is worth an estimated £3 billion. Others who have expressed an interest include British businessman Nick Candy and Turkish billionaire Muhsin Bayrak. Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss and American Todd Boehly have also been linked.
The club issued an official statement after the government's announcement, saying: “Chelsea Football Club has been advised that its owner Roman Abramovich has been sanctioned by the UK Government.
“By virtue of his 100 per cent ownership of Chelsea FC plc and affiliated entities, Chelsea FC would normally be subject to the same sanctions regime as Mr Abramovich.
“However, the UK Government has issued a general licence that permits Chelsea FC to continue certain activities. We will fulfil our men’s and women’s team fixtures today against Norwich and West Ham, respectively, and intend to engage in discussions with the UK Government regarding the scope of the licence.
“This will include seeking permission for the licence to be amended in order to allow the Club to operate as normal as possible.”
The Premier League also issued a statement on Thursday, saying: “The League will now work with the club and the Government to ensure the season will proceed as planned and in line with the Government’s intention.”
Chelsea fans called on the government to involve them in any conversation about the future of the club.
The Chelsea Supporters Trust issued a statement on Twitter saying: "The CST notes with concern the Government's statement regarding the owner.
"Supporters MUST be involved in any conversation regarding ongoing impacts on the club and its global fan base.
"The CST implores the Government to conduct a swift process to minimise the uncertainty over Chelsea's future, for supporters and for supporters to be given a golden share as part of a sale of the club."