Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich secretly financed the takeover of football club Vitesse and was financially involved for years during the period when he also owned top English club Chelsea. That writes The Guardian Wednesday after viewing leaked documents, the so-called ‘Oligarch files’. Vitesse previously denied that the Russian was involved with the club. And the Dutch football association KNVB was unable to establish any financial ties between Abramovich and the club in two previous investigations.
Based on the documents, the British newspaper writes that from 2010 to the end of 2015, the Russian financed a series of loans from Vitesse for at least 117 million euros.
1 What exactly does the documents reveal?
The Guardian found evidence in the leaked documents that Roman Abramovich was the covert financier of Vitesse for years through a web of trust companies. That started in 2010, with the takeover of the Arnhem club by the Georgian Merab Jordania. That million-dollar transaction, it turns out, was financed by Marindale Trading, a company of the later Vitesse owner Alexander Tsjigirinski registered in the British Virgin Islands. This company, in turn, had borrowed the money from a number of companies registered in tax-friendly places like Liechtenstein and Belize, which eventually got their funding from a single-owner trust company: oligarch and Chelsea owner Abramovich.
Initially, it was about 20 million euros, more than enough to meet the acquisition price of 8 million euros. In the five years that followed – so also after Tsjigirinski had formally taken over Vitesse from Jordania in 2013 – another sloppy 100 million euros flowed to Vitesse via similar constructions. It is not clear whether the payments then stopped. In 2018, Chigirinsky sold the club to Valeri Ojf, a businessman from Abramovich’s network, just like his predecessors.
2 Why is funding by Abramovich potentially a problem?
UEFA rules dictate that clubs are independent. That is to say: clubs that can play in the same league, that both have access to European football, for example, may not have the same owner. It is also prohibited to exercise “influence or control” over another club.
It was clear that there were ties between Vitesse and Chelsea, if only because dozens of rental players from the London club settled in Arnhem over the years. But Vitesse has always maintained that these were agreements between autonomous parties, made on the basis of equality. The years of financing by Abramovich, which suggests that Vitesse was directly dependent on his assets, seriously questions that independence.
3 Previous research has been done into Vitesse. Why was this not brought to light then?
The first investigation took place around the takeover in 2010. Four years later, the KNVB, aided by forensic accountants, again delved into the books and management structure of Vitesse. The reason was an interview by Mareb Jordania in The Telegraph. In it he said that Vitesse was opposed from London in 2013 after a good start to the season to prevent the club from becoming champion. In that case, Vitesse would have qualified for the Champions League just like Chelsea. According to Jordania, Chelsea blocked, among other things, the transfer of defender Kelvin Leerdam from Feyenoord to Vitesse. “We couldn’t get too strong,” Jordania told the newspaper.
The KNVB’s investigation came to a different conclusion: Chelsea had no influence or control at Vitesse. But it is doubtful whether the researchers had access to the same information as the Guardian journalists. The investigation was based on documents supplied by Vitesse, the KNVB has no investigative powers. At the same time, a Vitesse spokesman told The Guardian that the club had no knowledge of loans made between Abramovich and Chigirinsky’s companies.
The information on which The Guardian article is based was “never” known to the club, stilt Vitesse Wednesday. The club received share premium payments from the holding company above the club, financed by Marindale Trading, of which Tsjigirinski is the ‘sole’ stakeholder. “Vitesse had no knowledge of the way in which this company was financed.”
4 The Russians are now gone, is Vitesse out of trouble now?
No. At the beginning of September, a new owner was presented, the American investment party Common Group of Coley Parry. This after the Russian owner Valeri Ojf withdrew shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vitesse, which has suffered financial losses for years, announced in June that Ojf will cancel the debt – which amounted to 155 million euros. But more than half a year after the presentation, the licensing committee of the KNVB has not yet approved the intended takeover.
What makes the takeover complex is that the American Parry does not buy the shares directly from Ojf. This because of the sensitive political situation with Russia. Ojf first transferred the shares to the foundation behind Vitesse, from which Parry then takes them over.
In the case of acquisitions, the committee assesses the source of the investor’s assets. But surprisingly, in this case she also looks at “the historical transactions of the previous owners,” Parry recently said Football International. “The war in Ukraine has brought a closer look at anyone with a Russian passport. As far as I know, they are not on the sanctions list, but it takes a lot of time to find out exactly what’s going on. That makes the takeover complicated, but that has nothing to do with my investment.”
Interestingly, it now appears that a large part of the amount that Valeri Ojf has waived, the said 155 million, was an indirect debt to Abramovich. It shows how easy it is to circumvent the licensing requirements of the KNVB by setting up a web of trust companies. Vitesse had no insight into exactly how Tsjigirinski got his money, nor did the KNVB.
Also read this profile: Roman Abramovich is ‘by far the smartest of all oligarchs’
5 How is Vitesse doing at the moment?
The club is very restless, both administratively and sportively. The club of coach Phillip Cocu is fourteenth and, with eight games to go, is not yet sure of survival in the Eredivisie. General director Pascal van Wijk recently went on sick leave, and Henk Parren, chairman of the Supervisory Board, also left at the beginning of March.
And Vitesse has run into major problems due to a conflict with the landlord of the Gelredome stadium. The club has canceled the rent, because it considers the rent of more than 2 million euros too high. The contract expires at the end of September. Because the landlord thinks the rent proposed by the club is too low, an impasse has arisen.
At the end of February, Vitesse lost summary proceedings about the use of the stadium, which means that the club’s professional license is now at risk. The KNVB wants clarity about the venue for next season by 11 April at the latest. In an attempt to enforce that the club can continue to play in the Gelredome, a so-called turbo speed appeal will be served on April 7.
6 Can the financial influence of Abramovich in the period 2010-2015 still have consequences for Vitesse?
A spokesperson for the KNVB says that they have read the Guardian article, but that they cannot confirm “whether everything is correct”. He does say that if it turns out that the licensing committee of the KNVB has been “incorrectly and/or incorrectly informed”, they can impose sanctions.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on March 30, 2023