LONDON (Reuters) -Russian businessman Roman Abramovich said on Wednesday he would sell Chelsea Football Club, 19 years after buying it and setting the team on a path to sporting glory, and promised to donate money from the sale to help victims of the war in Ukraine.
Amid growing calls for Abramovich to be hit by sanctions after Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, the metals magnate said in a statement that a sale was in the best interests of the reigning European and world soccer champions.
“In the current situation, I have therefore taken the decision to sell the club, as I believe this is in the best interest of the club, the fans, the employees, as well as the club’s sponsors and partners,” he said.
Abramovich said he would not ask for loans he has made to the Premier League club – reported to total 1.5 billion pounds ($2.0 billion) – to be repaid to him and the sale would not be fast-tracked.
He has told his aides to set up a charitable foundation which would receive all net proceeds from the sale.
“The foundation will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine,” Abramovich said in a statement.
“This includes providing critical funds towards the urgent and immediate needs of victims, as well as supporting the long-term work of recovery.”
Swiss business tycoon Hansjoerg Wyss told a newspaper that he was considering buying Chelsea from Abramovich who over the weekend said he was stepping back from running the club but made no mention of any plans to change its ownership.
“Abramovich is currently trying to sell all his villas in England. He also wants to get rid of Chelsea quickly now. I, along with three other people, received an offer on Tuesday to buy Chelsea from Abramovich,” Blick quoted Wyss as saying in an interview published on Wednesday.
Abramovich bought the West London club in 2003 for a reported 140 million pounds and his investment contributed hugely to the most successful era in the team’s history as they won five Premier League titles, five FA Cups and the Champions League twice.
His purchase of the club helped transform the landscape of English football with Chelsea breaking the stranglehold of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
They beat Brazilian side Palmeiras last month to become FIFA Club World Cup champions for the first time, having defeated Manchester City to become European champions last season.
“A seismic moment” was how BBC presenter and former England striker Gary Lineker described the announcement ahead of coverage of Chelsea’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at Luton Town.
Chelsea fans at Kenilworth Road chanted the Russian’s name before kickoff.
The 55-year-old, who has Israeli and Portuguese citizenship, became one of Russia’s most powerful businessmen by earning fabulous fortunes after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union. Forbes has put his net worth at $13.3 billion.
Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Britain has imposed sanctions on 12 members of the Russian and Belarusian elite, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, and at least 12 banks and companies.
British opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday why there had not been sanctions against the Chelsea owner. Johnson, speaking in parliament, said he could not go into details on specific cases.
But Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned that she has drawn up a “hit list” of Russian oligarchs, and said the government would impose new sanctions on them every few weeks.
The Financial Times said the government was also making plans to seize property owned by Russian oligarchs.
David Davis, a veteran lawmaker in Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, said the sale should be blocked however until Abramovich can prove the source of his wealth.
“We should do everything to prevent him selling off his UK assets,” Davis said on Twitter
Abramovich said the decision to sell had been incredibly difficult.
“I hope that I will be able to visit Stamford Bridge one last time to say goodbye to all of you in person,” he said.
Abramovich turned his back on life in London in 2018 when the British government delayed renewing his visa following the attempted assassination of a former Russian double-agent in England, which it blamed on Moscow.
“It has been a privilege of a lifetime to be part of Chelsea FC and I am proud of all our joint achievements,” he said.
“Chelsea Football Club and its supporters will always be in my heart.”
($1 = 0.7481 pound)
(Reporting by William Schomberg; additional reporting by Martyn Herman and Kate Holton; Editing by Kate Holton and Ed Osmond)