The Summer 2023 transfer window brought the first opportunity for Chelsea. They were not only busy with their own transfers but also with those of other clubs. Last month, BlueCo – the company established by Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital conglomerate after acquiring Chelsea in 2022 – added Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace from Ligue 1 to its investment portfolio.
The strategy remains to lead Chelsea to success, but Strasbourg hopes to be the first team to benefit from the new “multi-club” model under the supervision of BlueCo. They broke the summer transfer record and are pursuing multiple targets. But what is BlueCo’s strategy, and how are the relationships between the currently active clubs? Why did Chelsea acquire another club?
Chelsea’s owner made it quite clear from the start of last summer that this was their plan. They admired the “multi-club” model of the City Football Group. CFG currently has 13 clubs, with the treble-winning team of the 2022/23 season, Man City. Red Bull has 5 teams in their system, including RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg, which often exchange players.
“We will continuously add resources,” Boehly said at a business conference in September 2022. “We have talked about owning multiple clubs. I really like to spread the oil stain in different countries and different football environments. Red Bull is doing very well in Leipzig and Salzburg, both playing in the Champions League. Man City of CFG is another example.”
Implementing this model gives Chelsea another club to develop players, whether from their own squad or players donning the Strasbourg jersey, with much better control over what happens. It could be argued that no English club has exploited the loan market more than Chelsea in the past two decades. Their relationship with Vitesse Arnhem (Netherlands) during Roman Abramovich’s era was used as a temporary home for young talents. There were 29 loan agreements between these two clubs from 2009 to 2021.
However, unlike this arrangement with Strasbourg, that cooperation wasn’t formalized. Standing 15th out of 20 in Ligue 1 last season, Chelsea will have a stronger say in the development of players they loan to Strasbourg.
“I think the challenge Chelsea is facing is having lots of young talents, 18, 19, 20-year-olds, and loaning them out without participating in their development,” Boehly added. “Our aim is to have these young superstars ready to serve Chelsea after they’ve gained real playing time elsewhere, and that has to be at a club competing in the top European leagues.”
So why Strasbourg?
Chelsea considered several options across various leagues worldwide. Strasbourg became the first club they acquired a majority stake in for a few years. Another crucial aspect of this decision is the relationship between Chelsea’s Director of Sport, Laurence Stewart, and Strasbourg’s President, Marc Keller. The two knew each other well when Stewart was the Technical Director at Monaco from 2020 to 2022. Their paths frequently crossed as their teams played in Ligue 1, and they also have a shared history, as Keller was the Sporting Director at Monaco from 2006-2008 and 2009-2011.
Stewart, formerly the Global Scouting Chief of the Red Bull Group and Head of Performance Analysis at Man City, suggested Strasbourg to Chelsea’s owners. Chelsea’s Technical Director, Christopher Vivell, conducted an initial analysis of the club’s discussions. BlueCo appreciated how Strasbourg had established themselves in Ligue 1 since their promotion in 2017 after a tumultuous period in their history. Keller, who became president in 2012, helped them recover from financial difficulties, and their accounts are currently in good standing.
Based in the eastern part of France near the borders of Germany and Switzerland, they won the League Cup in 2019 and finished 6th in the 2021/22 season; they are seen as a club with potential for development and competition. With post-Brexit regulations restricting English clubs from signing young players from continental European countries, Strasbourg could become a stage for emerging talents to play and develop. Meanwhile, they could use the Chelsea label to outcompete other French clubs in acquiring promising prospects, such as future Chelsea players.
Why did Strasbourg agree to this deal?
Strasbourg faced bankruptcy 12 years ago and dropped to the 5th tier of French football. Despite being financially stable now, the club’s current setup is deemed to have taken them as far as possible. Last season, they fought hard to avoid relegation, being only 5 points away from the relegation zone. With more foreign-owned clubs in Ligue 1 – over half of the 20 teams in the previous season and still even after Ligue 2 reduced to 18 teams from 2023/24 – there’s a concern that Strasbourg might be left behind.
The quest for outside investors started about 3 years ago after local investors fell through. Discussions with BlueCo began early, and initially, Strasbourg was only willing to sell a minority stake. However, BlueCo was clear that they wanted to acquire the entire club. Importantly, BlueCo stated that Strasbourg would be considered a sister club rather than subsidiaries. Keller would continue as president, and Loic Desire would remain the head of recruitment. BlueCo was acquiring not just a club but their expertise too.
After agreeing to the €70 million deal, Keller said, “This is an important day for Racing. Although not financially urgent, we know that the club has reached its ceiling, and if we want to move forward, Racing needs a new platform. The club needs to be accompanied by a solid structure capable of supporting development.”
Who is running Strasbourg?
Strasbourg continues to operate autonomously. There is regular communication with Chelsea’s sporting directors, Paul Winstanley and Stewart, and BlueCo is informed and involved in key decisions. However, Chelsea and BlueCo trust Strasbourg’s methods. Just 5 days after BlueCo took over, Strasbourg announced that head coach Frederic Antonetti agreed to leave. Antonetti had only been in charge since February with a successful relegation survival mission. He accomplished his job, keeping their position stable with 22 points from 15 matches.
However, the collaboration with Chelsea aims to elevate Strasbourg to new heights in French football. Hence, they wanted a more capable coach. On July 2, former Crystal Palace manager Patrick Vieira replaced Antonetti, a decision made by Strasbourg, with BlueCo only involved in the final negotiation stage. Strasbourg also came close to recruiting performance director Nicolas Mayer from PSG but he opted for Bayern Munich. Strasbourg’s ability to make autonomous decisions is viewed as positive.
Is Strasbourg anticipating an influx of players from Chelsea?
There will undoubtedly be some, but it won’t be an overwhelming influx. Chelsea will decide on a case-by-case basis what’s best for each player. Their 20-year-old forward David Datro Fofana was a loan proposition from Strasbourg. Yet, Chelsea allowed him to move to Union Berlin on loan for a season as it was his preference. Defender Malang Sarr is another potential addition, but Strasbourg couldn’t afford his wages.
Strasbourg will consider only suitable players. 18-year-old Brazilian winger Angelo Gabriel is expected to join Strasbourg on loan after Chelsea’s US tour, advised by Desire who negotiated his €15 million transfer from Santos. With Desire keen on Gabriel being at Strasbourg, Chelsea is ready to loan him for more playing time due to fierce competition at Chelsea. Flamengo winger Matheus Franca is also destined for a similar deal.
Strasbourg will only be considered for appropriate players. 20-year-old Dynamo Moscow midfielder Arsen Zakharyan, a player Chelsea has tracked for a while, could also be in this mix. Chelsea is also preparing a bid for Montpellier forward Elye Wahi, a deal displaying mutual support. Strasbourg likes the 20-year-old player but can’t afford him. Chelsea likes him too, and the perfect scenario would be Chelsea paying Montpellier €30 million, then swiftly selling him to Strasbourg. Like Franca, that perspective made Wahi apprehensive, but he’s convinced by the prospect of playing at Chelsea in 2 years if he performs well at Strasbourg.
Desire has truly compiled a list of players he likes in the database but that Strasbourg can’t afford. This list becomes more useful, shared with Chelsea. So how substantial is Strasbourg’s transfer budget? Around €25 million, plus any funds generated from player sales. Although they committed €32 million for Sylla and Emegha, they didn’t overspend since Sylla’s deal will be paid in two installments of €10 million each.
They are preparing to sell Diallo to West Ham for €20 million, which doesn’t concern Strasbourg. Chelsea will support them. Midfielder Jean-Ricner Bellegarde has just a year left in his contract, but Strasbourg persuaded him to extend, even though he might leave for free next summer. If the club wants him immediately, they’ll need to pay €7 million. This firm negotiating stance is another sign that things have changed at Stade de la Meinau.
What do Strasbourg supporters think?
Right after the deal was official, images of Strasbourg fans holding banners saying ‘Boehly Not Welcome’ appeared. Opponents of this idea have bad memories of American involvement during the period when the club was owned by the marketing and sports management company IMG-McCormack from 1997 to 2003. There are also concerns about seeing Troyes, a club under the City Group’s sponsorship, get relegated to Ligue 2 last season. On the contrary, some fans are excited about the newcomers who have joined or might move to the club. But it’s not unanimous.
Matthieu Kittel, a season ticket holder, is quite skeptical. “I worry that Chelsea doesn’t care about Strasbourg’s best interests. I don’t know what their plan is. There’s a big difference between us – they want to play in the Champions League every year, but we’re just trying to survive in Ligue 1. I also worry about the players coming here. I can’t imagine them staying for more than 1 or 2 years just to get a shot at Chelsea. I don’t want my club to become a breeding ground for someone else. It’s still too early for the big picture, but I wonder if our club has less autonomy now.”
However, Keller aims to stabilize Strasbourg in Ligue 1’s Top 10. With Chelsea, many clubs in Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Brazil, etc., will come under their patronage in the future. But it all starts with Strasbourg.
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