With U.K. Visa Delayed, Abramovich Puts London Arena on Hold

(Bloomberg) -- Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich has shelved plans to expand a stadium in London for his Chelsea soccer team, the biggest commercial casualty of tension between the U.K. and Russia.

While a statement by the team, which he has owned since 2003, attributed the decision to an unfavorable investment climate, the decision underscored the potential cost to Britain if capital inflows from Russia slow. Chelsea does not have a time frame for reconsidering its decision to delay the expansion of Stamford Bridge that would have increased capacity to 60,000 from 41,000, according to a statement on the club’s website.

Abramovich, with a fortune that the Bloomberg Billionaires Index puts at $13.7 billion, has been unable to travel to Britain because of delays in renewing his visa. The businessman missed Chelsea’s FA Cup Final victory against Manchester United on May 19 due to the visa problem, which emerged after Britain accused Russia of poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury. Other Russian billionaires, notably Oleg Deripaska, have been hit by U.S. sanctions.

Abramovich, who received Israeli citizenship this week, has invested upwards of 700 million pounds ($930 million) in new player signings for Chelsea, making it London’s top team during most of his tenure. The club has won four English Premier League titles as well as Europe’s most coveted trophy, the Champions League, in 2012.

Folk Song

When he first arrived at Stamford Bridge, the team’s home, the crowd regularly sang along to a recorded version of Kalinka, the Russian folk song, a tradition that ended some years ago. He visited the stadium less this past season, which by Chelsea’s standards was unsuccessful aside from the cup victory.

The club missed out on next season’s lucrative Champions League competition, meaning that it will be deprived a chunk of income. Meanwhile, it has seen its stadium capacity outstripped by London rivals Arsenal, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, which all hold at least 60,000 in completed or under-construction arenas. Tottenham’s new stadium is set to open toward the beginning of the new season in August. The Telegraph put the cost of the Chelsea stadium at more than 1 billion pounds.

Founded in 1905, Abramovich’s team had been looking to play in a larger stadium for several years and looked at acquiring Battersea Power Station. After failing to find an alternative site, it announced it would try to redevelop its current home. It won approval for the project last year and had planned to play its first game in the revamped venue in 2021.

The council in the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, site of the stadium, negotiated 22 million pounds ($29 million) of improvements for residents, from affordable housing to extra street cleaning, as part of the deal.

Sadiq Khan, the Major of London, last year described the proposed stadium, which was designed by architects Herzog and de Meuron, creators of the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, as "the jewel in London’s sporting crown," according to an interview in the Evening Standard.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.