Roman Abramovich secretly bankrolled Dutch football club, leaked documents suggest

Roman Abramovich 'secretly bankrolled Dutch football club'

·9-min read

Roman Abramovich secretly funded the takeover of a Dutch top division football club and bankrolled it for years during the period that he also owned Chelsea, leaked documents appear to show.

Two investigations by the Netherlands football association were unable to uncover any financial ties between Abramovich and the club, Vitesse Arnhem, and concluded that the Russian oligarch had no managerial influence on Vitesse. Both Vitesse under its then owners, and Chelsea under Abramovich, repeatedly denied the oligarch was involved in funding the Dutch club.

The financial information has come to light in the Oligarch files, a cache of leaked data originating from the Cyprus-based offshore service provider MeritServus. The documents, reviewed by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, appear to reveal for the first time at least €117m (£102.8m) in secret funding from Abramovich for the Vitesse takeover, which flowed through a series of entities registered in opaque offshore tax havens.

Links to Chelsea were suspected at the time of the 2010 takeover, which was led by the Georgian former footballer Merab Jordania. While he described Abramovich as his friend at the inaugural press conference, Jordania denied the oligarch was involved.

Merab Jordania (right) announced he had bought Vitesse Arnhem in August 2010 at a press conference where he celebrated with the president of the club’s board, Maasbert Schouten (left).
Merab Jordania (right) with board president Maasbert Schouten at a press conference announcing he had bought Vitesse Arnhem. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/EPA

The Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) launched a first investigation into the financing of the takeover but found nothing to conflict with its rules.

Suspicions of links continued after Jordania’s takeover, as Chelsea used Vitesse – which plays in the Dutch Eredivisie – as a partner club, to which players not yet ready for the demands of the English Premier League could be loaned and gain competitive experience. Many Chelsea players went to Vitesse on loan throughout the 2010s, notably including the Serbia international Nemanja Matić and the current Chelsea and England star Mason Mount, who played for Vitesse in the 2017-18 season.

Further questions were asked after Jordania left in 2013 and another associate of Abramovich, the Russian businessman Alexander Chigirinsky, took over. Vitesse and Jordania revealed at that point that Chigirinsky had already been financially involved in the club, since the 2010 takeover.

In April 2014, Jordania appeared to allege that Chelsea was involved, fuming that Vitesse had been prevented from strengthening its team in a bid to win the Eredivisie and qualify for the Uefa Champions League because “London didn’t want that”. He later withdrew the comments, and still maintains there was no truth to the allegation.

The revelations prompted the second KNVB investigation, which concluded “there are no indications that Chelsea has a say in Vitesse’s policy”.

In 2017, the Guardian reported that associates of Abramovich based at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge offices had been involved in the Vitesse takeover. At the time, Chelsea declined to comment, saying only: “We enjoy a close working relationship with Vitesse Arnhem, as we do with other clubs.”

The rules of Uefa, the European football confederation, require clubs that play against each other to be independently owned and run “to ensure the integrity of the competitions”, and that “no individual or legal entity may have control or influence over more than one club participating in a Uefa club competition”.

Chelsea’s Cesc Fàbregas scores during a friendly against Vitesse Arnhem in 2014
Chelsea’s Cesc Fàbregas scores during a friendly against Vitesse Arnhem in 2014. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/EPA

The leaked trove of documents appears to show that Abramovich bankrolled Vitesse’s spending with a series of loans worth at least €117m (£102.8m) by the end of 2015. This was a huge investment for Vitesse, whose total turnover in 2014-15 was €14m (£12.3m).

Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 after becoming a Russian oil and gas billionaire, pouring £2bn into the club to fund signings of world-class stars. They delivered unprecedented success, including twice winning the Champions League. Abramovich was forced to sell Chelsea last year after being subject to sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The KNVB’s first investigation in 2010 reported that a company, Marindale Trading, had facilitated the funding for Jordania’s takeover of Vitesse. They said a connection could be made with Chigirinsky, but that they had found no “certainty about the possible managerial influence from Mr Abramovich”. In 2015 the second investigation concluded there were “no indications that Chelsea has a say in Vitesse’s policy”.

The Oligarch files shine further light on these arrangements. They do not show whether Abramovich or his club held managerial influence at Vitesse. However, they strongly suggest that he provided significant funding to the club.

Loan agreements and other documents confirm that Marindale Trading, a company newly registered in the British Virgin Islands owned by Chigirinsky, funded the takeover and the club. They also show that Marindale had itself received a series of multimillion-euro loans, routed through entities in different tax havens.

The loans appear ultimately to originate with Abramovich. In August 2010, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands, Ovington Worldwide, lent €20m to a company registered in Liechtenstein that documents indicate was linked to Chigirinsky: Trigonia Anstalt. Ovington Worldwide was owned by another BVI company, Electus Investments, which was controlled by the Sara Trust. Roman Abramovich was the sole beneficiary of the Sara Trust, and therefore the ultimate beneficiary of the BVI company, Ovington, that lent the money to Trigonia.

On the same day as Ovington lent the €20m to Trigonia, a different company linked to Chigirinsky – Limburg Holdings, registered in Belize – made a loan to Marindale Trading. Ten days later Marindale lent the exact same sum as Ovington, €20m, to the company Jordania used as the vehicle to buy Vitesse. This more than covered the agreed purchase price for Vitesse, which was €6m, rising to €8m.

During the subsequent three years that Jordania owned Vitesse, five loans worth millions of euros were made that all followed the same pattern. Abramovich’s company, Ovington, loaned money to the Chigirinsky-linked company, Trigonia; then Limburg Holdings lent to Marindale Trading, which lent the exact same amount of money to Jordania’s holding company for Vitesse, almost always on the same day.

In these initial series of loans, the documents do not show Trigonia transferring the money to Limburg, which then lent to Marindale. But the documents, and matches of dates and figures, strongly suggest that the money flowed from Abramovich’s company, Ovington, through the Chigirinsky-linked companies, to Vitesse.

After Jordania left in 2013 and Chigirinsky formally took over as Vitesse’s owner, the documents show that the pattern continued but with Trigonia no longer in the chain. Ovington, Abramovich’s company, lent millions directly to Limburg, which in turn made loans to Marindale, which lent the exact same sums to the Vitesse holding company. At least one further loan was recorded as having been made in this way even while the KNVB was conducting the second investigation.

In December 2015 the loans were rerouted a final time, when another Abramovich company registered in the BVI, Wotton Overseas, took over as the lender. Wotton Overseas, the documents show, was owned by another trust, Europa, of which Abramovich was the beneficiary. By the end of 2015, the total loans made available by Abramovich’s companies in this way matched the figure ultimately made available to Marindale Trading, the company that funded Vitesse: €166m. Of that, €117m appears to have been drawn down.

Chigirinsky remained in charge of Vitesse until May 2018, when he sold the club.

Asked about the arrangements, Jordania told the Guardian in a telephone conversation that Abramovich and Chigirinsky were both good friends of his, and both had lent him money when he needed it for Vitesse.

“This is true, yes,” he said. “It was my personal project and they supported me very much when I bought the club with my resources, and then when I started the project sometimes money wasn’t enough and I was using also money of my friends, and first of all Roman Abramovich, Chigirinsky.”

Jordania said that although he explained to Abramovich that he needed the money for Vitesse, the money was lent to him personally, not directly for Vitesse.

“It was, let’s say, personal debt, my personal debt to Abramovich and Chigirinsky.”

The KNVB told the Guardian that its two investigations by forensic accountancy firms were into “the governance of Vitesse and whether there were ties with Chelsea FC and/or Roman Abramovich. Both firms could, on the basis of the evidence put to them, not discover the existence of such ties.” The investigators in 2010 relied on public information, and the second “was based on information and documents provided by Vitesse”. A spokesperson pointed out that the KNVB had to rely on the information provided to it, because it has no “public investigation powers, like, for example, the police”.

A Vitesse spokesperson stated that between 2010 and 2016 the club’s holding company received loans from Marindale Trading of €136.6m, then invested in the club in the form of share premiums. The spokesperson added:

“Vitesse has absolutely no knowledge of any loans between [other] companies owned by … Chigirinsky and Mr Abramovich.” Representatives of the club were “not aware” of any funding from Abramovich.

Chigirinsky did not respond to detailed requests to comment. Demetris Ioannides, a managing partner of MeritServus, didn’t respond to a request for comment at the time of publication. Previously he has said trust law and data protection regulations prevented him from disclosing information to third parties.

Lawyers for Bruce Buck, the Chelsea chairman throughout the period, said in response to questions: “As regards Vitesse, our client has no knowledge or recollection of the allegations regarding arrangements between Mr Abramovich and Vitesse, or statements made by CFC about Mr Abramovich and Vitesse. If the events you describe happened at all, they are not matters that our client had any involvement with, in any capacity.”

Lawyers for Chelsea said that as the club has been under new ownership since May 2022, all the questions were for Abramovich to address.

In response to detailed questions about the loans that he appeared to have provided for the takeover of Vitesse and to bankroll the club’s costs, a lawyer instructed by Abramovich declined to comment.