Vitesse loses pro football licence over financial crisis

The troubled Dutch football club Vitesse Arnhem has had its professional football licence revoked, bringing it a step closer to bankruptcy.

Today’s decision by the KNVB, the Dutch football association, means that the club cannot play in next season’s domestic football leagues.

In a statement, the KNVB said Vitesse would no longer hold a licence as of July 9, and cited incomplete documents including the “lack of a bank account, the lack of an auditing accountant and the fact that no balanced budget could be provided” as key reasons why the club would not compete.

The club has already announced its intention to appeal the decision, citing 11th-hour buyout discussions that could restructure its huge debts. However, if the appeal fails, the club will find itself with millions of euros in debts and few ways to raise money, meaning almost certain insolvency.

The loss of its licence caps off a dramatic downturn in fortunes for Vitesse. Earlier this year the 132-year-old club – Netherlands’ second oldest – was relegated from the top league, where it had played continuously for more than three decades.

The KNVB’s decision followed a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Guardian that revealed secret – and previously denied – financial connections between the club and Roman Abramovich during the oligarch’s ownership of Chelsea FC.

This included revelations that Abramovich had secretly bankrolled the club over multiple years with at least €117m in loans, using a network of shell companies in offshore jurisdictions including the British Virgin Islands, Liechtenstein and Belize.

At the time Vitesse was nicknamed “Chelsea B” due to the huge number of players that were loaned to the club, including Nemanja Matić and Mason Mount. Vitesse’s three most recent owners – Merab Jordania, Alexander Chigirinsky and Valery Oyf – were all known to be close to Abramovich.

Both clubs denied any form of formal relationship and two previous investigations by the KNVB had failed to find any evidence of Abramovich’s influence on the running of the club.

Nevertheless, Vitesse’s fortunes shifted after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Abramovich was sanctioned in both the EU and the UK, while Oyf signalled his intention to sell the club.

TBIJ and the Guardian’s investigation last year prompted a third KNVB inquiry into the club’s ties to Abramovich, as well as one by the Dutch economic affairs ministry.

In April this year, the KNVB docked 18 points from Vitesse – the largest such penalty in Dutch history, and one that guaranteed the club’s relegation – for repeated breaches of licensing regulations and providing incorrect information to investigating authorities. It also said its inquiries unearthed “indications that Abramovich has or has had control over Vitesse”.

Vitesse has been in a desperate hunt for a new owner to pay off the club’s mounting debts. However, one prospective US investor, The Common Group – which also holds a significant amount of the club’s debt – was rejected by the KNVB. The football authority cited a lack of transparency over the origins of the group’s funds.

Despite gaining approval to transfer Oyf’s shares in Vitesse to a new foundation, which could then pass them on to a buyer, the club has been unable to raise the funds to balance its books – a requirement for retaining its licence.

Vitesse said that it would appeal the decision, adding that a preliminary agreement had been reached between Guus Franke, a Swiss-based Dutch entrepreneur, and Coley Parry, CEO of The Common Group, on the group’s share of Vitesse’s debt.

According to the club, Franke will only become the intended owner of Vitesse after the debt is restructured and “on the condition of approval and the eventual granting of the licence by the KNVB”.

Edwin Reijntjes, Vitesse’s interim general manager, said: “Hopefully we will receive good news from the licensing and appeals committee within a few weeks and we can definitely continue.”

Header image: Vitesse fans rallying before a match last month. Credit: Ben Gal/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Reporters: Simon Lock and Ed Aarons
Impact Producer: Lucy Nash
Enablers editor: Eleanor Rose
Deputy editor: Katie Mark
Editor: Franz Wild
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Fact checker: Alex Hess

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