How an English football club got caught up in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Selling one of the world’s most well-known football clubs was meant to create a $4.8 billion lifeline for Ukrainians fleeing a Russian invasion.

But two years later the money made from selling Chelsea Football Club is still locked in a frozen bank account in the United Kingdom.

The club’s former owner is Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich – now accused of having close ties to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin.

Here’s what we know.

Who is Roman Abramovich?

Abramovich was once described by a UK judge as a “moderately successful businessman” before he became one of Russia’s most well-known billionaires.

Russian billionaire and former owner of Chelsea Football Club Roman Abramovich.(Reuters: Andrew Winning)

Orphaned at four years old, he joined the army as a young man and eventually moved to Moscow.

The break-up of the Soviet Union made him one of Russia’s wealthiest men, taking part in a controversial oil trade deal that set up his fortune and influence for years to come.

It was that fortune and influence that made it possible for him to buy one of the UK’s most popular football clubs – Chelsea – for a cool $240 million in 2003.

Chelsea striker Didier Drogba takes on William Kvist of FC Copenhagen during the UEFA Champions League match at Stamford Bridge on March 16, 2011(Shaun Botterill: Getty Images)

He went on to invest millions into the club over the next two decades.

During his ownership, Chelsea dominated the Premier League, FA Cup, and the League Cup.

According to Deloitte’s 2024 Football Money League, Chelsea was the ninth-highest-earning football club in the world.

So why did Abramovich sell?

When Russia invaded Ukraine, countries began to crack down on it and its allies.

In the UK, the government and the European Union targeted people it thought had close ties with the Kremlin – one of those people was Abramovich.


Abramovich saw the writing on the wall, some media outlets say, and attempted to offload Chelsea before he became a target in Britain’s “largest ever” package of sanctions against Russia.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office was quick to move, labelling him “a designated person and therefore subject to financial sanctions”.

It alleged he had close ties with Putin’s regime, and had benefited from a friendly relationship with the Russian president.

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It is a claim Abramovich has denied.

“I have instructed my team to set up a charitable foundation where all net proceeds from the sale will be donated,” he said in a statement on the team’s website.

“The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.

“This includes providing critical funds towards the urgent and immediate needs of victims, as well as supporting the long-term work of recovery.

“Please know that this has been an incredibly difficult decision to make, and it pains me to part with the club in this manner.”

Where did the money go?

As a result of the sanctions, “all funds and economic resources belonging to, held or controlled directly or indirectly by [Abramovich] are required to be frozen immediately”.

That included any money from the sale of Chelsea, and any of the club’s activities in the meantime.

Sanctions meant the club couldn’t sell new tickets or merchandise, couldn’t transfer or acquire players, and caps were put on match travel.

Chelsea was effectively placed in the hands of the UK government while different billionaires battled it out in the background to take over the club.

A man wearing a blue beanie and a blue and white scarf gestures with his hands

Chelsea co-owner and chairman Todd Boehly is seen as the face of the club’s new ownership, despite sharing stakes with other investors.(Reuters: Peter Cziborra / Action Images)

A “consortium of investors”, including LA Dodgers part owner Todd Boehly, had the winning bid with $8.2 billion — making it the most expensive team transaction in professional sports.

It was a deal that was made up of $4.8 billion for the club itself, plus $3.3 billion to go towards investment over the next 10 years.

Two years on, where is the money now?

Tom Keatinge is the director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK, and said the money received from the sale of the club is locked in a trust controlled by lawyers.

A man with black rimmed glasses, a grey beard and a blue shirt headshot

Tom Keatinge founded the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies in the UK.(Supplied: Royal United Services Institute)

“It’s important to recall that this money still belongs to Abramovich,” he said.

“When assets are frozen by sanctions the ownership does not change, they can’t just be accessed, sold – this is why Abramovich needed a licence from His Majesty’s Treasury to sell Chelsea so that it could continue operating.

“When assets are frozen, they cannot be accessed by the user without a licence.”

The licence, alongside difficulties faced by setting up a new independent foundation and political differences on its expenditure, means the UK government is now going on two years with the money still locked in the same account.

Some of the concerns with the delay were detailed in a report by the UK parliament’s European Affairs Committee.

“When pressed on reasons for the delay … the Minister for Europe told us that there is a ‘disagreement’ between the parties about who should benefit from the fund and where the monies should be spent,” the report read.

“The government is insisting that the funds have to be spent in Ukraine on Ukrainians.”

Mr Keatinge said the condition brought about an impasse.

“I believe Abramovich wants the assets to be used on other causes, like displaced Russians, and as he controls what happens to the assets — subject to a licence from the UK government — if he does not agree, nothing will happen,” he said.

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