European champions Chelsea are now effectively under the control of the British government after Russian owner Roman Abramovich was placed under sanctions on Thursday.
Abramovich, who had been under scrutiny following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, had announced he was selling the Premier League club last week.
Yet that process is now on hold, leaving the club, ranked by Forbes as the seventh most valuable in world football at $3.2 billion, in a state of limbo.
The Russian bought the West London team in 2003 for a reported 140 million pounds ($184 million) 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.
Abramovich had funded Chelsea via 1.5 billion pounds in total loans through Fordstam Limited, the entity through which he owns the club. In their most recent accounts in December, Chelsea who reported losses of 145.6 million pounds, said they were "reliant on Fordstam Limited for its continued financial support". Yet now there is a huge question mark over the club's future.
Chelsea, the Premier League and a spokesperson for Abramovich did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A number of potential new owners had emerged in the past week, including several American sports executives, but there is now a block on any sale. A source close to Chelsea had told Reuters on Wednesday that the expectation within the club was that a deal would be done "sooner rather than later".
Potential buyers will now have to wait to see how any eventual legal appeal from Abramovich plays out and whether there is any change in stance from the British government in the coming weeks and months.
Chelsea are now operating under a special government licence, which allows some exemptions to the asset freeze restrictions, in order to allow the west London club to fulfil their fixtures. Chelsea, who are currently third in the Premier League and in the last 16 of the Champions League, will be able to play their games and pay their players and broadcasters will be permitted to show their matches on television.
Only fans who have already purchased tickets or who have season tickets will be allowed to attend matches, the government said while no new merchandising sales will be permitted. The club will not be able to enter into transfer deals for new players or receive money for selling existing players -- effectively a transfer ban. However, the club will be able to continue paying the wages of all employees, including their playing and coaching staff.
British government Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said the moves were aimed at "depriving Abramovich of benefiting from his ownership of the club". "I know this brings some uncertainty, but the Government will work with the league and clubs to keep football being played while ensuring sanctions hit those intended," Dorries said in a statement. "Football clubs are cultural assets and the bedrock of our communities. We're committed to protecting them."
Fans group, the Chelsea Supporters Trust (CST), urged the government to involve fans in future decisions over their club. "The CST notes with concern the Government's statement regarding the owner. Supporters must be involved in any conversation regarding ongoing impacts on the club and its global fan base," they said in a statement.
"The CST implores the Government to conduct a swift process to minimise the uncertainty over Chelsea's future, for supporters and for supporters to be given a golden share as part of a sale of the club."