A former chief executive of Unicef UK is to spearhead the charity being set up to receive the proceeds of Roman Abramovich’s proposed £2.5bn sale of Chelsea Football Club, even as the controversial sale hit a potentially significant stumbling block.
Sky News can reveal that Mike Penrose, who has spent nearly three decades working for humanitarian causes and is currently in eastern Ukraine, has been working for several weeks on plans to establish the new foundation.
He was drafted in at the club’s request but is not thought to have had any contact with Mr Abramovich himself at any point.
Mr Penrose, whose other former roles include chairing Soccer Aid, the football charity, said that the charity could transform millions of lives.
The foundation created from the sale of Chelsea could have an enormous effect on the lives of millions of people, in Ukraine, and other conflict-affected areas,” he said.
“If we can remove politics from the creation of this foundation, we could do something remarkable and change the life of millions of conflict-affected people.”
Mr Penrose’s comments came as it emerged that preparations for the new charity’s establishment could be rendered if the government and Chelsea’s current owner cannot resolve an impasse over the structure of the deal.
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Accusations from Whitehall officials that Mr Abramovich himself was hampering the government’s ability to wave the club’s sale through underlined the political stakes of the deal falling apart, insiders said.
Mr Abramovich has insisted that the full £2.5bn proceeds from the sale of his shares in Chelsea should be donated to war victims, but that would include roughly £1.5bn that would be generated by the repayment of a loan made to Chelsea’s parent company by another vehicle connected to the oligarch.
Government officials told Sky News and other news outlets on Monday that they had serious doubts over Mr Abramovich’s approach to the loan’s repayment, sparking renewed fears that the club could yet face financial collapse.
The departing owner said in a statement earlier this month that the £2.5bn generated by the sale to a consortium majority-funded by Clearlake Capital would “be deposited into a frozen UK bank account with the intention to donate 100% to charitable causes”.
“UK Government approval will be required for the proceeds to be transferred from the frozen UK bank account,” Chelsea said on May 7.
However, talks between the two sides have hit obstacles in recent days, including over suggestions that some of the proceeds could be diverted to grassroots football projects in England.
A licence enabling Chelsea to operate – under significant restrictions – since Mr Abramovich was sanctioned expires at the end of this month, with various footballing authority deadlines meaning that new owners need to be in place imminently.
Mr Penrose’s involvement in the foundation may be significant because of his international reputation in the third sector.
At one point taken hostage during the war in Chechnya, he told Sky News that he was entirely independent of Chelsea and its owner.
“The only contact I have had with the owner is via the chair of Chelsea, and one of his spokespeople,” he said.
“I have never met him, nor has he ever conveyed any message to me.
“The only request I received was to use my experience and contacts to create a Foundation that would have the greatest impact on conflict affected people in Ukraine, and in other countries affected by conflict across the globe.”
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Mr Penrose has also run Action Contre La Faim, one of France’s largest non-profit organisations, worked as the global humanitarian director of Save the Children, and as a humanitarian and conflict advisor to the UK government during the Iraq war.
“We have some of the worlds most experienced humanitarians, including former CEOs of charities, UN Chiefs, conflict experts and fund managers ready to create the world’s leading humanitarian foundation,” he said.
“I have never been asked to do anything other than create a foundation that would have the greatest impact on conflict affected people, particularly in the Ukraine.”
The collapse of the Chelsea sale would mean billions of pounds not going to charity as well as Chelsea FC’s future being cast into grave doubt.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Chelsea both declined to comment.