When Roman Abramovich was forced into selling Chelsea following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine amid the oligarch’s alleged links to Vladimir Putin, it was reported that as many as 200 groups expressed an interest in buying the West London club. A consortium led by American businessman and investor Todd Boehly was successful.
It was second time lucky for Boehly, who tried to buy Chelsea in 2019. It’s been a turbulent period for the Blues since Abramovich rejected that $3 billion bid, after the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the footballing world early the next year.
Chelsea would end their 2019-20 campaign with defeat to London rivals Arsenal in the FA Cup final, to go along with a fourth-place finish in the Premier League. Securing fourth spot ensured the Blues safe passage to the Champions League, and although there was another FA Cup final defeat to handle, they would go on to win Europe’s premier cup competition in the following season, beating domestic rivals Manchester City in the final.
Chelsea could call themselves the best team on the continent for the second time in their history, nine years after their maiden Champions League triumph in 2012. New coach Thomas Tuchel had proven to be a huge upgrade on club legend Frank Lampard, and things were really looking up for the West London outfit as they set their eyes on a first Premier League title since 2017.
However, Tuchel was unable to get close to the dominant duo of Manchester City and Liverpool in last season’s league campaign, eventually finishing third, while the Blues failed to get their hands on any silverware after losing to Liverpool on penalties in both the EFL Cup and FA Cup finals.
Away from the pitch, the club was thrown into total disarray on the back of the war in Ukraine. Towards the end of February 2022, Abramovich announced that he was handing over the “stewardship and care” of Chelsea to the club’s charitable foundation.
Just a few days later, the Russian announced he had come to the “incredibly difficult decision” to sell the club. He would not demand loans in excess of £1.5 billion to be repaid to him by Chelsea, while also stating the proceeds of the sale would be donated to victims of the Ukrainian war.
Then, later in the month, Abramovich was sanctioned by the UK government. The Chelsea owner’s assets were frozen, and he was prohibited from doing business within the UK.
The sanctions prevented Chelsea from selling any further tickets for games. The club shop was closed meaning the Blues couldn’t sell merchandise, while they were banned from buying and selling players.
A special licence was issued that allowed Chelsea to fulfil their remaining fixtures, while also enabling staff to be paid and existing ticket holders to attend matches. Even so, the future of the club was completely up in the air.
Amid reports Tuchel was unsure about remaining at the club, not to mention a raft of players both in and soon to be out of contract, the doomsday scenario was that the government effectively had the power to end Chelsea’s existence as an elite Premier League club.
As such, the sale to Boehly must’ve caused a real conflict of emotions within the club’s supporters. Chelsea fans idolised Abramovich for turning their team from also-rans to competing for the biggest prizes at home and abroad.
However, it quickly became clear that the Russian’s time at the club had come to a sudden and conclusive end. Still having a team to support will have been something of a relief for the club’s followers, with ostensibly little short-term damage caused by the takeover process.
The result of all the turmoil is that Chelsea are no longer owned by a benevolent benefactor who seemingly had zero interest in making money out of the club. Abramovich’s main driver, which appears to be securing a very public form of protection from the carve-up of wealth following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is now moot.
However, the Russian oligarch – who bought Chelsea for around £140m in 2003 – said that his ownership had “never been about business nor money, but about pure passion for the game and club”.
Indeed, that purported passion led to a breathtaking outlay of funds on Abramovich’s behalf, which enabled the Blues to win every major trophy possible. Bankrolled by the billionaire, Chelsea won the Premier League and FA Cup five times, the League Cup three times and the Champions League twice, plus a UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.
Naturally, Boehly and the rest of his consortium, which includes co-controlling owners Behdad Eghbali and Jose E. Feliciano of investment firm Clearlake Capital, Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss and fellow American businessman Mark Walter, want to make a success of their new acquisition. Especially considering they’ve shelled out an eye-watering sum that could reach some £4.25 billion.
However, success for a group of investors looks different to the pure, unadulterated craving for trophies possessed by Abramovich. Boehly and co beat off three other American syndicates in the final round of bidding to buy Chelsea, and there’ll need to be significant return on investment for their purchase to be considered a success.
Coming into the club with a background in investment, it’s tough to see Boehly having the same passion for Chelsea as Abramovich in an emotional sense. As a co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, the American no doubt holds an interest in competitive sport.
Yet Boehly immediately took on the role of interim sporting director in light of Marina Granovskaia’s phased departure from the club, raising plenty of eyebrows as to his suitability to slot into such a position. Especially in place of the highly experienced and respected Granovskaia.
Even so, Chelsea enjoyed a good first summer transfer window under their new ownership, adding the likes of Raheem Sterling, Kalidou Koulibaly and Marc Cucurella to the squad, as well as a number of promising youngsters including Carney Chukwuemeka.
Decisive action was taken in loaning out the wantaway Romelu Lukaku back to Inter Milan, with Boehly fully involved in negotiations in a way that Abramovich never was. Chelsea seem set for a far more hands-on owner than before, but only time will tell if this is to be a positive thing.
On the pitch, it’s going to be incredibly tough for the Blues to overhaul defending Premier League champions Manchester City. Boehly and co have a decent track record in that the LA Dodgers won the 2020 World Series following two near misses in 2017 and 2018, but football is, well, a completely different ball game.
Venture capitalists have mixed success in football. The Premier League riches have been highly attractive for American investors for many years. We’ve seen plenty of failures, not least in the way the Glazer family have run Manchester United into the ground. Successes have been rarer, although Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group provide the blueprint for how to operate an English super club that doesn’t have the bottomless pit of state ownership.
Whether Boehly and his consortium can continue the unrivalled period of success Chelsea have enjoyed since Abramovich pitched up in West London remains to be seen. It’ll be incredibly tough though. The Blues haven’t won the league for five years, with City going for a third straight title this season and a fifth in six years.
Whatever happens though, it’s likely to be intriguing and eventful, as things always seem to be at Stamford Bridge.
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