ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Abramovich relinquishes control but not ownership of UK’s Chelsea soccer team

Facing calls to completely give up the team after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, billionaire linked to Putin says charitable foundation is ‘in a better position’ for stewardship

Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women's Champions League final soccer match in Gothenburg, Sweden, on May 16, 2021. (Martin Meissner/AP)
Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women's Champions League final soccer match in Gothenburg, Sweden, on May 16, 2021. (Martin Meissner/AP)

LONDON (AP) — Roman Abramovich symbolically diminished his status as Chelsea owner by appearing to take himself out of the decision-making process on Saturday after facing calls to completely give up control of the Premier League club following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The billionaire is one of Russia’s highest-profile oligarchs and has been highlighted in the past for links to President Vladimir Putin, who is being ostracized globally for launching the unprovoked attack on a neighbor.

There is no indication that Abramovich is paving the way for a sale of the club he has transformed since 2003 with his wealth, but a carefully worded statement indicated a relinquishing of some control.

“I have always taken decisions with the club’s best interest at heart,” he said. “I remain committed to these values. That is why I am today giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC.

“I believe that currently they are in the best position to look after the interests of the club, players, staff, and fans.”

The foundation is chaired by Bruce Buck, who is also chairman of the club after becoming a director following Abramovich’s takeover. Chelsea director of finance Paul Ramos is also among the trustees as is Emma Hayes, who manages the women’s team.

There was no sense this change at Stamford Bridge was coming before the attack on Ukraine, and politicians have been among those to urge moves to end his ownership. Abramovich had already given significant control to director Marina Granovskaia over transfers and other key matters, like the hiring and firing of managers.

There has been no announcement about whether Abramovich would be subject to British sanctions targeting Russians. Abramovich made his fortune in oil and aluminum during the chaotic years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Some of that wealth was used by the football fan to chase the prestige and status derived from sporting success after buying Chelsea. Since 2003, Abramovich has invested more than $2 billion in the form of loans and transformed the west London team into one of the most successful in England. Earlier this month, the Blues added the Club World Cup title to the Champions League trophy won last year.

“During my nearly 20-year ownership of Chelsea FC,” Abramovich said, “I have always viewed my role as a custodian of the club, whose job it is ensuring that we are as successful as we can be today, as well as build for the future, while also playing a positive role in our communities.”

Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, center, applauds at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Sunday, May 21, 2017. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

Abramovich, a former Russian provincial governor, is now a dual Israeli citizen with a net worth estimated at more than $13 billion.

Abramovich has not had a British visa since 2018 when a renewal application was taking longer than usual to go through and was withdrawn.

That came at a time when Britain pledged to review the long-term visas of rich Russians in the aftermath of the poisonings of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. Britain blamed Russia for the pair’s exposure to a nerve agent, an allegation Moscow denies, and Abramovich is not linked to.

At the time, Abramovich halted plans to build a new stadium, citing the “current unfavorable investment climate.”

The announcement about handing over the “stewardship and care” of Chelsea came a day ahead of the League Cup final meeting with Liverpool at Wembley Stadium. Victory would give Chelsea a fourth League Cup under Abramovich to go with the five Premier League titles, two European Cups, two Europa League titles and five FA Cups.

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel acknowledged on Friday that issues around the Ukraine crisis and Abramovich were affecting the squad.

“It’s clouding our minds,” Tuchel said. “It brings huge uncertainty, much more to all the people and families who are actually in the moment more involved than us. And our best wishes, regards and thoughts are obviously with them, which is absolutely the most important thing.

“And still there are so many uncertainties around the situation of our club and of the situation in the UK, with scenarios like this, that it makes no sense if I comment on it.”

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich holding a banner saying ‘Say No to Antisemitism’ in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 2021. (Courtesy: Chelsea FC/President Rivlin/GPO)

Abramovich was the first mega-rich owner to buy a club in the Premier League which has since seen the financial landscape reshaped by Abu Dhabi investment into Manchester City and the purchase of Newcastle last year by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.

Chris Bryant, a legislator with the opposition Labour Party, raised objections to Abramovich in the House of Commons this week and said the government should be looking at “seizing some of his assets,” including a home he claimed to be worth 152 million pounds ($204 million).

Bryant cited what he claimed to be a leaked government document from 2019 suggesting Abramovich was associated with “corrupt activity and practices” in Russia.

“Surely Mr. Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country?” Bryant said.

Across the Premier League on Saturday, players and fans at matches showed solidarity toward those in — and from — Ukraine following Russia’s invasion with flags and messages calling for peace.

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