Gary Neville has reacted to Roman Abramovich’s announcement that he intends to sell Chelsea after an almost 20-year ownership of the club.
Abramovich made the announcement on Wednesday evening amid rising fears of UK sanctions, and said the net proceeds from the sale would be used to found a charitable foundation “for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine”.
The billionaire had initially intended to hand “stewardship and care” of Chelsea to the club foundation’s trustees, as outlined in a previous statement on Saturday, in a move aimed to protect the Stamford Bridge club following Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.
But he has now publicly admitted he is looking to sell up.
Abramovich bought Chelsea in a £140m deal in 2003 and is owed £1.5billion in loans, debt he says he will not ask to be repaid.
Following the announcement, Sky Sports pundit Neville gave his views on the situation, and on the issues of so-called sportswashing and club ownership in the Premier League…
‘Chelsea have been successful under Abramovich’
“It’s more of a reactive measure than a planned measure because I don’t think he would have put the statement out on Saturday night, handing the club to the trustees if he knew he was going to put the club up for sale a few days later.
“We’ve seen in the news over the last four or five days that wealthy Russians are moving their assets all over the world to more safe havens where they’re not going to have their assets seized, and Abramovich is no different.
“He’s been an important owner in Premier League history over the last 20 years. I do believe he has enhanced the competitiveness of the Premier League.
“It was a model at the beginning that I found bizarre, coming from a stable club at the time in Manchester United – sacking managers quite regularly who had seen success. But over the last 20 years, he has been a very successful owner of a football club that has created a distinctive model in the way they approach things, particularly with their academy players.
“They’re a football club who have been very successful and become admired under his ownership, but eventually those alleged links to Vladimir Putin and the war on Ukraine have brought it to an end.
“I think things have been closing in on him for a few years now and it has come to a head in the last week.
“I’m not thinking that all of a sudden, Abramovich is a philanthropist and he’s an angel walking away from English football – I don’t think anybody should. We’re all aware how Russian wealth was spread around all those years ago after the break up of the Soviet Union… There were alleged links to Putin, no one really knows how close.
“But there were reports the other day that Abramovich was helping with peace talks so he must be very close if they were true.”
Neville on sportswashing
“There is a lot of talk about sportswashing, around Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi, Russia coming into sport in this country. I’ve been quite positive in my view that we should accept this money into our country.
“At this moment in time, that theory is being tested enormously, but I would rather use sport for change and create better environments and circumstances for populations in countries who don’t have it as free as ours.
“What I would say with sportswashing and Russia is it’s not helped by FIFA’s hesitancy in the early days [following the invasion of Ukraine] when Poland said they wouldn’t play them in the World Cup play-off. FIFA is embedded with Russia and it took them time to fudge it as they normally do, saying they could play with the country on their shirts and the national anthem not being played.
“When you see Russia winning [the right to host] big tournaments and trying to legitimise their regime through sport, it does challenge my opinion that I would rather it was inclusive and bringing in countries with what you would say are poor human rights records or other major issues. I would rather sport rose above it and accepted those countries to try and affect change and impact change.
“For those that are adamant that we shouldn’t be allowing this money into the Premier League and other parts of our society, they are having a very strong week because even my long-held opinion is being tested enormously.
“Chelsea fans have a lot of affinity with Abramovich and rightly so. But the reality of it is Chelsea will be okay and irrespective of whether you like the idea of Russian money coming into English football or not, Abramovich has been a very good owner for Chelsea. There are worse owners who are English.”
‘Premier League needs more transparency on ownership’
“We’ve got an issue in English football with ownership in general… football has been on the brink for a few years now and that’s why I’ve been calling for an independent regulator.
“I’m not against Saudi Arabian money coming into Newcastle, I know Newcastle fans have welcomed that to transform their football club because they had a very poor English owner. However, what should be a right of all football fans in this country is what was the criteria that the Saudi Arabians had to get through to be accepted into English football. Where’s the transparency?
“The Premier League is a closed shop around these matters and it’s not good enough. It’s coming hurtling at them like you would not believe because they cannot separate sport and these societal and political issues anymore.
“They are going to have to stand up and accept that while they don’t believe they’re a public body, they are ultimately going to be viewed like that and they have to act and behave in that manner.
“We’ve seen other societal issues bleed into football continuously over the last 18 months to two or three years and that is absolutely right. We cannot separate ourselves in sport or football anymore and that is something that means football is going to have to be held to higher stands.
“That means there needs to be more independence, more transparency and recognition that football is too important in this country – too important to fans.”