The sale of Chelsea is in major doubt because of fears Roman Abramovich is attempting to renege on his promise to write off his £1.6bn loan to the club.
On a day when Sir Jim Ratcliffe increased the pressure on Todd Boehly’s consortium, who have been granted preferred bidder status, it emerged that Chelsea said during talks with the government last week that they wanted to restructure the way the club is being sold. That would include paying off the debt from the club’s parent company, Fordstam Ltd, to a Jersey-based company, Camberley International Investments, which appears to be linked to Abramovich.
The suggestion caused surprise at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and some ministers believe it would be politically toxic to agree to it while Abramovich’s assets are frozen. The Russian oligarch, who was hit with sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine, has previously indicated net proceeds of the sale would go to victims of the war in Ukraine.
Abramovich is arguing that the sanctions will prevent him from writing off Chelsea’s debt. There is a sense in Westminster this could be a late bargaining ploy. But there are growing concerns that the sale could drag on, with Chelsea’s operating licence set to expire on 31 May. Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, said last week that the European champions were on “borrowed time”.
There have been warnings that Chelsea could be prevented from playing in the Premier League and in Europe next season if they are not under new ownership before their licence expires.
Chelsea and a spokesperson for Abramovich have been approached for comment.
It is understood that some in government could be open to Abramovich’s request if there were guarantees the repayment of the loan would not go to a sanctioned entity. But the practicalities of that are unclear and other figures have taken a more pragmatic view.
The Treasury is determined to stop any money reaching Abramovich’s pocket. The ownership of Camberley International Investments is unclear, but it appears to be linked to Abramovich or family members.
Fordstam’s latest accounts state: “Funding is provided by the ultimate controlling party, Mr R Abramovich.” The accounts also state in the “related party transactions” section that “Camberley International Investments Ltd provides funding to Fordstam Ltd and its subsidiaries as required to enable the Group to continue as a going concern”.
The issue could become a complication as the Boehly consortium, who are in the middle of a five-day exclusivity period, attempt to agree a deal with Abramovich this week. Rival bidders remain on standby and Ratcliffe, who launched a dramatic £4.25bn bid for Chelsea last Friday, has not given up hope of buying the club.
Ratcliffe’s offer for Chelsea, who want to open contract talks with Mason Mount and Reece James once a takeover has been completed, was revealed while Raine, the US bank handling the sale, was telling the three shortlisted contenders that Boehly’s group were the preferred bidders.
A source close to Abramovich cautioned against writing off Ratcliffe after Boehly beat competition from consortiums led by Sir Martin Broughton and Steve Pagliuca. Raine are not focussed on Ratcliffe’s bid at the moment.
Ratcliffe, who owns the British petrochemicals company Ineos, signalled his seriousness by meeting the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust last weekend. The British billionaire insisted he would be in it for the long term, revealed plans to raise Stamford Bridge’s capacity to 60,000 and said he wanted to turn Chelsea into the Real Madrid or Bayern Munich of London.
Boehly’s consortium, which includes his fellow LA Dodgers owner Mark Walter, the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, the British property developer Jonathan Goldstein and the US investment firm Clearlake Capital, are still the favourites.
But fears have been expressed over what the long-term future for Chelsea would hold if the deal goes through given that Clearlake is expected to take a majority stake, with Boehly taking a minority stake and operational control. Insiders have questioned whether a private equity firm would be prepared to spend the money required to help Chelsea to compete for honours.
Ratcliffe, who offered to pay £2.5bn for Chelsea and pledged to invest £1.75bn over the next 10 years, is poised if talks with Boehly break down. Pagliuca and Broughton are also watching with interest.
Chelsea, who will need to ask the government for a new licence to complete the sale, cannot afford major delays. The uncertainty has played a part in Antonio Rüdiger’s impending move to Real Madrid on a free transfer, creating unrest in the dressing room, and has led to rival clubs exploring the possibility of signing Mount and James.
Boehly’s group are aware of the need to start contract talks with James and Mount. The duo are unlikely to want to leave but there is a need to ensure they feel valued.
Mount has two years left on his deal and is one of Chelsea’s lowest‑paid players. The 23‑year‑old midfielder earns about £70,000 a week. Romelu Lukaku, whose future is increasingly uncertain, earns more than £300,000 a week.
Sources have warned against Chelsea playing hardball with Mount. James, who has three years left on a deal worth about £100,000 a week, is attracting interest from top European clubs.
Chelsea are facing losing Andreas Christensen on a free to Barcelona, who are also hopeful of signing Marcos Alonso and César Azpilicueta. In attack there are doubts over Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner. Pulisic has two years on his deal and is unhappy about his lack of playing time.