Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, often seen smiling, grimacing, clapping, supporting in the owner’s box at Stamford Bridge, has been a slightly less visible figure at the club’s matches this season, including the FA Cup final at Wembley on May 19th. Abramovich had been present at just about every major final his club have contested in the past 15 years of his ownership.
A day later, as we were still reveling in winning the FA Cup for the eighth time (fifth in the Roman Era), news broke that the UK government had not renewed Roman Abramovich’s visa. He wasn’t allowed into the country, which explained why he wasn’t there to watch his team beat Manchester United and put a positive final note on an otherwise disappointing season.
Since Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, he’s relied on a Tier 1 investor visa to conduct his business in the United Kingdom. This visa grants the owner an initial three-year, four-month stay, after which it must be extended or renewed every two years. After five years, the applicant can also apply for permanent settled status, but this is something that Abramovich apparently never did (there are residency requirements for that last step, which may have made him ineligible if he didn’t basically live full-time in the country). The investor visa is only issued to individuals and families who commit significant capital to UK investments — that threshold was recently doubled from £1m to £2m, which resulted in a significant drop of applications though it’s not something that would affect Abramovich.
Initially, this renewal issue seemed like a temporary situation, just a bit of typical bureaucratic delay over something minor or insignificant. The visa renewal process, which Abramovich has surely undergone multiple times at this point, usually takes three weeks. The Bell, which broke the initial story, followed-up by reporting that the process was now stretching to six weeks, and that Abramovich wasn’t being singled out. The Russia-news outlet claimed that 700 wealthy Russians were being denied visas.
This is where this issue gets very political very quickly, and that’s very much beyond the scope of this blog. However, it does seem like Abramovich is being used mostly as a pawn in a geopolitical standoff between the British and Russian governments over, among several other issues, a poisoning scandal. That’s not to say that Abramovich, whose source of wealth has regularly come under scrutiny, as have his supposedly close ties to Vladimir Putin, is not in some way responsible for finding himself in this situation, but the fact remains that he’s been barred from a country where he’s already invested billions and was looking to invest again.
I wouldn’t be particularly keen on investing £1 billion in a country that wasn’t falling over themselves to fast track my investment visa application either.— Jake Cohen (@JakeFCohen) May 31, 2018
In order to at least be allowed to visit London, Abramovich became an Israeli citizen this week. In response, 10 Downing Street promptly took the unusual step of publicly declaring that although Israeli citizens are allowed six months entry in the UK (without a visa), they’re not allowed to live, work, or study in the country.
That was two days ago. Today Chelsea announced the shock news that all stadium development plans had been put on hold. Meanwhile, Abramovich has dropped his request for a visa. According to two of the more reliable sources in British reporting, the Financial Times and also the Times, the timing isn’t a coincidence.
Roman Abramovich has halted the planned £1 billion redevelopment of its Stamford Bridge stadium in a direct response to being denied a UK visa https://t.co/CJmzIb7LsK— The Times of London (@thetimes) May 31, 2018
The Financial Times wrote:
A person close to the club’s leadership said it was impossible to continue with the project without assurances over its owner’s immigration status, with Mr Abramovich unwilling to commit hundreds of millions of pounds to the stadium construction due to the issues over obtaining a new visa.
It’s hardly surprising that Chelsea’s owner is unwilling to commit himself to a project which may edge close to costing him £1 billion by the time it’s all finished, while his legal status in the country is in doubt. It wouldn’t be sound business. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that today’s announcement is his way of returning pressure on the government, a reminder that he’s good for the economy.
What doesn’t appear to be in doubt is Abramovich’s continuing commitment to Chelsea Football Club. Sky News followed-up today’s developments with this claim:
However, one source has told us that it is still “business as usual” at the west London club and that Abramovich’s commitment to the club is “unwavering”.
Roman Abramovich has already spent more than £1 billion on improving Chelsea in the fifteen years he’s owned the club, from player acquisitions, to building a state-of-the-art facility at Cobham, to developing a youth system which finally seems to be bearing fruit for club and country as well. And, of course, he’s won trophies — a 14-cup haul that’s the best in the Premier League since he took over — which has made him and the club a frequent target of narratives.
All the political issues aside, it’s hard to imagine an owner who has a greater passion and commitment to his club. In fact, sometimes it’s been a bit too much, when he’s tried to impose himself on the day-to-day footballing issues. And while there will be Chelsea Football Club after Abramovich just as there was almost 100 years of it before him, we can only hope that the current crisis is indeed a passing phase, and that the larger national and global situation surrounding our very specific football issues is eventually resolved in a manner which allows our owner to continue his investment in the club that we all love.