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Chelsea Football Club's uncertain future

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Today the United Kingdom froze the assets of seven Russian oligarchs in the latest response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Those assets include Chelsea F.C., one of Europe's most prominent soccer teams and a perennial Premier League contender. Russian businessman Roman Abramovich has owned Chelsea for the past 19 years. Last week, he announced he wanted to sell the team, but the U.K. sanctions have put those plans on hold. As of now, the team can play games and honor tickets already purchased, but it can't sell new tickets or even team merchandise. Here to discuss the uncertain future of Chelsea F.C. is Rory Smith, who's been covering soccer and this story for The New York Times. Welcome.

RORY SMITH: Hello. How are you doing?

MCCAMMON: Good to have you. So the team can play for now, but it doesn't seem like it can make any new revenue. What else do these sanctions prevent?

SMITH: So any kind of revenue stream at all is essentially out of bounds, except for the things, as you say, that are already committed and the elements that they need to keep on paying their staff, which obviously includes the players but also the hundreds of support staff in the accounts department and the marketing department and the coaching staff. They will be paid from the television revenue, which is the major source of income for all soccer teams, which is going to be put into a special account. Abramovich can't access any of it. That will go to paying Chelsea's costs in the short term. But the question, I think, has to be how long that holding pattern can last.

MCCAMMON: Before we get into what else this means for Chelsea, we should explain more about who Roman Abramovich is. What should we know about him?

SMITH: He's a Russian billionaire widely accepted as one of the oligarchs who benefited in the late 1990s and early 2000s under Boris Yeltsin. But Abramovich really came to prominence in Britain, particularly in the West in general, kind of overnight in 2003 when he bought Chelsea, which at the time was a prominent but not overly successful team. And Abramovich transformed it immediately into this arriviste superpower, really. He bankrolled huge amounts of spending on players and coaches. They won two championships in his first three years. They've kept on being contenders for not just the Premier League but the Champions League. Chelsea are a superpower now, and that is entirely because of Abramovich.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned he spent a lot of money, invested a lot in the team. Did his buying Chelsea in 2003 raise eyebrows at the time just for the fact that he is a Russian oligarch?

SMITH: At the time, the story that we were told was that he'd been to see a match at Old Trafford where Manchester United play, and he'd fallen in love with soccer and decided to buy a club. And it was kind of presented as this incredibly unlikely but inherently romantic story of this man being captured by the beautiful game. And I think that was accepted basically universally for a couple of years. And it's only in recent years that we maybe understood that there was something else at play.

We've seen other teams bought by nation-state. So Manchester City is owned by people linked to the government of Abu Dhabi. Newcastle United last year was bought out by the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia. And I think we, in that new context, started to understand in the last few years that perhaps the arrival of Abramovich at Chelsea was kind of an exercise in soft power in some way.

MCCAMMON: Will this in any way make the Premier League reconsider who it does business with in the future?

SMITH: It really ought to, but, essentially, no. The Premier League's philosophy has always been that more money is good, and it doesn't matter where the money comes from, which is the thing that keeps the whole circus moving is the money. And when you're in that cycle, I think it's very hard as a sporting lead, as a competition, as a show to turn your back on the money. So yes, it - to me, to a lot of observers, it would seem like this is the moment of reckoning. I'm not especially hopeful that there will be any substantive change.

MCCAMMON: Rory Smith covers soccer for The New York Times. Thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Kathryn Fox