Chelsea can finally think about the future. One of the strangest, most unpredictable, most politically charged episodes in the history of English football is finally over. Roman Abramovich has left the building and Todd Boehly’s consortium has taken control of Chelsea after the UK government granted permission for the £4.25bn takeover to go through with a week to go before the club’s special operating licence was due to expire.
That date, 31 May, had loomed large in the diary. It felt fraught with danger when government sources suggested the deal was in danger of collapsing because of fears that Abramovich wanted to renege on his promise to write off his £1.6bn loan to the club. The wildest scenarios had Chelsea going bust if they missed the sale deadline and, given all the twists and turns over the past three months, it was not always easy to be entirely confident that the story was going to end with Boehly’s group promising to give Thomas Tuchel significant funds to rebuild his squad.
The only way to cope has been to suspend your disbelief ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February made Abramovich’s 19-year ownership of Chelsea untenable. Events moved swiftly after the Russian oligarch was named in parliament by the Labour MP Chris Bryant, who said that the 55-year-old was identified by the Home Office in 2019 as having links to the Russian state and to “corrupt activity and practices”. The writing was on the wall. Abramovich, who had instructed the US bank Raine to begin the search for a new owner, knew the game was up.
Hansjörg Wyss, an 86-year-old Swiss billionaire, had already said he was interested in buying Chelsea by the time Abramovich confirmed his intention to sell on 2 March. The process was under way. Prospective bidders began to put plans in place, some less plausible, others more credible.
Muhsin Bayrak, a Turkish businessman, repeatedly insisted he was making an offer. Nick Candy, the British property tycoon, made a lot of noise after throwing his hat in the ring. A Ghanaian gold mine owner, Bernard Antwi Boasiako, said he was a serious bidder.
It was Raine’s job to cut through the noise. It had soon emerged that Wyss had teamed up with Todd Boehly, a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Boehly’s investors included his fellow Dodgers owner Mark Walter, the British property developer Jonathan Goldstein, and the US investment firm Clearlake Capital; the group looked the real deal and felt like the obvious favourites from the start.
Yet the process was complicated when the government imposed sanctions on Abramovich on 10 March. Chelsea were placed under a restrictive operating licence that stopped them from selling new tickets for home games, capped their travel costs, forced them to close the club shop and prevented them from handing out new contracts, leaving them powerless to stop Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rüdiger from leaving on free transfers.
Suddenly the sale had an extra layer of jeopardy. The government would not allow a single penny to go to Abramovich. Raine, assisted by Chelsea’s chairman, Bruce Buck, and the club’s director Marina Granovskaia, battled against the clock to find a shortlist of four bidders by 25 March. They were Boehly’s group, a consortium led by Sir Martin Broughton and Lord Coe, a bid fronted by the Ricketts family, and Stephen Pagliuca’s consortium.
The next stage began – and it was no less dizzying. The Ricketts family faced historical accusations of Islamophobia, were opposed by Chelsea fans and eventually pulled out of the running after their consortium failed to decide how to fund a final bid. Broughton’s group, that intriguingly had backing from the Crystal Palace shareholders Josh Harris and David Blitzer, and enlisted the help of Lewis Hamilton and Serena Williams. Pagliuca sought support from John Terry.
The race grew bitter. Buck faced accusations of favouritism towards the Ricketts family and there was shock when Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of Ineos, made an offer of £4.25bn just as Raine was preparing to select Boehly’s group as the favoured bidders on 29 April.
Ratcliffe had left it too late. Raine had come too far and a purchase agreement was signed with Boehly’s group on 6 May. Boehly and his partners had passed every test. They had met Abramovich’s asking price of £2.5bn and had agreed to invest a further £1.75bn in Chelsea’s infrastructure. Sizeable bonuses were also due to be paid to Granovskaia and Buck as recognition for their roles in the deal.
Yet there were still challenges to overcome. The government needed to approve the sale and there were concerns about the £1.6bn debt owed by Fordstam Ltd, Chelsea’s parent company, to Camberley International Investments, a Jersey-based company that appears to be linked to Abramovich.
On it went, fans panicking when government sources raised the prospect of Abramovich letting Chelsea go out of business. Yet the doomsday scenario felt slightly overblown. The talks continued and a solution was found. The initial £2.5bn from the sale will go into an escrow account, where it will stay until the government is satisfied the money will go to a charity for victims of the war in Ukraine, and the final obstacle was out of the way once Abramovich agreed to legally binding guarantees stating that the money from the loan will go into a frozen account under government control.
“We’re getting there,” a Westminster source said earlier this week. Mike Penrose, the former Unicef UK executive director, had been asked to head the charitable foundation. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Chelsea had endured a difficult end to the season, pockets of empty seats at Stamford Bridge at several games underlining their plight, but they finally woke to good news on Wednesday morning. The government had finally issued a licence for the sale and Chelsea could start to look forward to life under Boehly.