Swiss billionaire mulls buying Chelsea FC amid Russia turmoil

Hansjorg Wyss, one of Switzerland's richest men, said Wednesday he had been offered the chance to buy Chelsea, with the European football champions' Russian owner Roman Abramovich under growing scrutiny.

Chelsea's home ground at Stamford Bridge. By Vespa125125CFC at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Chelsea's home ground at Stamford Bridge. By Vespa125125CFC at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Wyss, 86, who founded the medical device manufacturing firm Synthes, told the Swiss newspaper Blick that he and three others had been sounded out on Tuesday.

But Wyss wants Abramovich to lower his asking price for the English Premier League side. Abramovich revealed Saturday that he plans to place his ownership of the Blues into the “stewardship and care” of the Chelsea Foundation’s trustees.

Abramovich has not been named on a growing British sanctions list targeting Russian banks, businesses and pro-Kremlin tycoons in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been pressed on why Abramovich has not been cited, given his familiarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

READ MORE: Switzerland to impose sanctions on Russia

“Abramovich is among Putin’s closest advisers and friends,” Wyss told Blick.

“Like all the other oligarchs, he is panicked. Abramovich is currently trying to sell all his villas in England. He also wants to get rid of Chelsea quickly. Along with three other people, I received an offer on Tuesday to buy Chelsea from Abramovich.

“I have to wait four or five days. Abramovich is asking too much right now. Chelsea owes him Ł2 billion ($2.7 billion, 2.4 billion euros). But Chelsea has no money. This means that those who buy Chelsea must compensate Abramovich.

“We do not yet know the exact sale price. I can very well imagine myself joining Chelsea with partners. First I have to look carefully at the conditions. “I certainly wouldn’t do such a thing alone. If I buy Chelsea, it will be with a consortium of six to seven investors.”

Silence at Stamford Bridge 

Contacted in London, Chelsea refused to comment, while a spokeswoman for Abramovich did not immediately respond. Chelsea defeated Brazil’s Palmeiras 2-1 in the Club World Cup final in Abu Dhabi last month, meaning the Blues have now won every possible trophy since Abramovich bought the west London side in 2003.

Johnson was asked in Warsaw on Tuesday why Abramovich has not been personally sanctioned by Britain, as several UK lawmakers have demanded.

READ MORE: How Switzerland reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and how you can help

In response, Johnson did not mention the Chelsea owner, but said Britain would be “tightening the economic noose” further around the Russian regime.

In parliament on Tuesday, opposition Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant said Abramovich seemed “terrified of being sanctioned, which is why he’s already going to sell his home”. Wyss praised the West’s “excellent approach” in imposing sanctions on Russian interests.

“The fact that the Russian oligarchs are targeted by the Americans and Europeans is absolutely essential, because they may have an influence on Putin,” he told Blick.

Medical devices fortune 

Forbes magazine’s 2021 annual list of the world’s dollar billionaires put Wyss in 451st place, with a fortune of $6 billion. The Harvard Business School graduate was the chairman and president of Synthes, one of the world’s major manufacturers of instruments and implants to mend bone fractures.

In 2012, Synthes was bought by US healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson.

READ MORE: How Europe reacted to Switzerland’s historic sanctions announcement

It now forms part of J&J’s DePuy division, with the acquisition creating one of the world’s largest orthopaedic and neurological businesses. Wyss is also a well-known philanthropist, with his charitable foundation worth over $2 billion.

In 2018, he pledged to donate $1 billion to conservation programmes. Stephen Taylor Heath, head of sports law at Manchester-based lawyers JMW Solicitors, said it was understood that Abramovich controls the corporate entities that own Chelsea rather than the club directly.

“Any would-be buyer would need to undertake due diligence which would establish the ownership structure and any issues with the club. And so a very quick immediate sale would be very difficult in practice,” he said.

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LATEST: Moscow says Switzerland can’t represent Kyiv in Russia

Ukraine had asked Switzerland to represent it diplomatically in Russia, but the Kremlin claims the Swiss have 'lost their neutral status'.

LATEST: Moscow says Switzerland can't represent Kyiv in Russia

Russia said on Thursday that Switzerland has lost its neutral status and cannot represent Ukraine diplomatically in Russia, blaming Bern’s decision to impose sanctions on Moscow.

Switzerland had stated earlier that Ukraine asked Bern to represent it in Russia.

The Swiss foreign ministry said that Ukraine had requested that Switzerland “assume a protecting power mandate” for Kyiv in Russia, confirming a story in the Luzerner Zeitung newspaper.

“The corresponding negotiations have been completed,” a ministry spokeswoman told AFP in an email on Wednesday.

READ ALSO: Switzerland bans imports of Russian gold

But the spokeswoman had stressed that “in order for the protecting power mandate to come into force, Russia still has to give its consent” – which the Kremlin didn’t.

Switzerland has lost neutral status’

“Unfortunately, Switzerland has lost the status of a neutral state and cannot act either as a mediator or as a representative of interests,” Russian foreign ministry spokesman Ivan Nechayev told reporters.

He confirmed that Bern had asked Russia if it would agree to Switzerland representing the interests of Ukraine in Russia and vice versa.

Nechayev stressed that Switzerland had been supporting the Kyiv government and slapped sanctions on Russia.

READ ALSO: MAP: Which Swiss cities will be most impacted by a gas shortage this winter?

“It is completely incomprehensible how one can offer mediation, representation or other goodwill services with such behaviour,” he added.

Ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24, Switzerland — renowned for its neutrality — has said it stood ready to provide diplomatic assistance and to serve as a go-between.

Moscow has been angered by Bern’s decision to follow the neighbouring European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia.

Switzerland has a long tradition of acting as a protecting power, first playing the role during the Franco Prussian War in 1870-71.The wealthy Alpine country, which has held such mandates hundreds of times
since then, currently represents the diplomatic interests of a range of countries including Russian interests in Georgia and vice versa.