London (AFP) – Chelsea Football Club’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich was on Thursday hit with a UK assets freeze and travel ban, throwing his plans to sell the European and world club champions into disarray.
The billionaire owner of the English Premier League side became the highest profile oligarch yet sanctioned by any Western country, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine late last month.
Abramovich, 55, was one of seven more oligarchs slapped with new British restrictions over the invasion, including his former business partner Oleg Deripaska.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been accused of delaying action against wealthy Russians, and turning a blind eye to Russian money that has coursed through London since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He called the sanctions “the latest step in the UK’s unwavering support for the Ukrainian people”.
– ‘Blood on their hands’ –
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said the “oligarchs and kleptocrats” targeted were “complicit” in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
“The blood of the Ukrainian people is on their hands. They should hang their heads in shame,” she said.
Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, turning the perennial also-rans into serial winners with unlimited transfer funds after he became rich on the chaotic privatisation of state assets in 1990s Russia.
He has denied claims that he bought the London club on Putin’s orders, to expand Russia’s influence abroad in the early 2000s.
Others sanctioned Thursday were Rosneft chief executive Igor Sechin, whom the British government described as Putin’s “right-hand man”, and the head of energy giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller.
Also on the list were VTB bank chairman Andrey Kostin, Transneft president Nikolai Tokarev and Bank Rossiya chairman Dmitri Lebedev.
London said the seven have a collective net worth of about £15 billion ($19.7 billion, 17.8 billion euros) and described them all as part of Putin’s inner circle.
– Special licence –
The government gave Chelsea a special licence to continue playing football and keep the Premier League season on track.
But spending restrictions under the licence will severely hamper the team’s operations in England and Europe.
The club’s management said the curbs were too harsh and that it wanted talks with the government “for the licence to be amended”.
Speaking before Chelsea’s latest league match Thursday evening, coach Thomas Tuchel played down the sanctions even though they mean the club cannot sign new players, renew contracts or sell match tickets.
“Actually, I’m not sure I am concerned but I am aware of it. It changes almost every day,” the German said.
But commercial fallout became apparent as mobile phone firm Three announced it was suspending its sponsorship deal with Chelsea, and demanded its logo be removed from players’ shirts.
And Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial said it had suspended ties with Abramovich, who is Jewish, after saying last month that he was donating “an eight-figure sum” to the museum in Jerusalem.
Speculation has swirled since Russia’s invasion about whether Abramovich would be included in any UK sanctions.
He announced last week he was selling Chelsea. A number of prospective buyers have come forward, including tycoons in the United States, Switzerland and Turkey.
But a UK sanctions official told reporters the government’s licence “does not allow for the sale of the club” unless the Treasury approves another licence to do so.
Johnson’s spokesman said the government was “open” to a sale if an application was received and granted, but said “under no circumstance” should Abramovich profit from it.
– Yachts and planes –
Shares in Russian steel giant Evraz, of which Abramovich is the major shareholder, plunged almost 12 percent on the London Stock Exchange Thursday morning until trading in the company was suspended.
Abramovich’s extensive property holdings include a 15-bedroom mansion in London’s exclusive Kensington area. He also owns one of the world’s largest yachts, the 533-foot (162-metre) Eclipse, and a private jet.
Russian ships and planes have been banned from UK ports.
Kensington and other high-end areas of London are dotted with exclusive homes owned by wealthy foreigners.
London mayor Sadiq Khan, while backing the government’s sanctions, said oligarch assets such as Chelsea Football Club should not be sold off in a “fire sale”.
Empty mansions should instead be seized and “used to house some of these Ukrainians fleeing the war zone”, he said.
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