LONDON (Reuters) – Chelsea fans arriving on Sunday for the Blues’ first home match under government control said they were worried that an era of glittering success might be over after owner Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was hit with an asset freeze last week.
Chelsea are in a state of limbo after the British government sanctioned Abramovich and other Russian businessmen as it sought to increase the isolation of President Vladimir Putin for his decision to invade Ukraine.
“What a ride we had with Abramovich,” Claire Mitchell, a season ticket-holder since the 1970s, said as she headed for Stamford Bridge.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have a better owner because he genuinely loved Chelsea. My fear is we get an asset stripper, people who know nothing of football and that emotional commitment who brings us down.”
The government last week said Abramovich had close ties to Putin over decades. Abramovich has denied having such ties.
The reigning European and world champions are now operating under a special government licence which includes strict rules on operating expenses including how much the club can spend on travel for away fixtures and a ban on new ticket sales.
The team can continue playing games and pay players and staff but cannot buy or sell players, a major problem for the club as they seek to remain a major force in the game.
Dan Silver, a board member at the Chelsea Supporters Trust, which represents fans, said he hoped Abramovich would not fight the decision to freeze his ownership which could make it harder to find a buyer.
“Mr Abramovich has got two choices here – either he walks away from the club or he drags the club through the mud with protracted legal battles,” Silver said.
Many fans said they were conflicted about the situation.
“It’s very difficult because obviously you’re against the war in Ukraine,” said Peter Higgs, a Chelsea fan for 63 of his 68 years, standing outside the pub where the club was founded in 1905.
“But the amount of good Roman has done, not only for the club but also for the area,” (means) you have different feelings.”
He said the asset freeze decision raised difficult questions for the sport and he pointed to the Saudi Arabia-backed consortium of Newcastle United, Chelsea’s opponents on Sunday, which includes the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
The takeover last year led to protests from human rights groups.
Newcastle fan Dylan Richardson, 18, who set off from England’s north east before dawn to get to the Premier League game, said the excitement he felt when the deal was done had given way to mixed feelings about the ownership, and Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war in Yemen.
“You cannot ignore the issues around Yemen. But for me it doesn’t change my opinion,” Richardson said. “I’m happy and excited about the prospect of where the club can go.”
Many Chelsea fans said the apparent end of the Abramovich era could halt the run of trophies that made the Blues the most successful team in England in the period since he bought the club in 2003.
“As a Chelsea supporter, you want the good times to keep rolling,” Higgs said. “If not you’re just like a Tottenham and Arsenal.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)