The only place we can start is the Roman Abramovich/Chelsea stuff. The British government imposed sanctions on the Chelsea owner yesterday, laying out in stark terms exactly why:
Roman Arkadyevich ABRAMOVICH (hereafter ABRAMOVICH) is a prominent Russian businessman and pro-Kremlin oligarch. ABRAMOVICH is associated with a person who is or has been involved in destabilising Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin, with whom ABRAMOVICH has had a close relationship for decades.
Quite why it took them so long since the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a question I can’t answer, but you don’t need to be the most cynical person in the world to come with something. Nevertheless, they’ve done it now, and the implications for Chelsea are serious. There’s a good run down here of what the sanctions might mean for the football club whose success since 2003 was bankrolled by a man whose companies provided steel to Russian military for tanks which bomb maternity hospitals.
“Bomb pregnant women, you’ll never sing that.”
I thought this was an interesting piece from David Conn who says that football ignored the truth about Abramovich, and there’s no hiding from that. The people who ran the game in England welcomed him and his money, because it made the spectacle bigger and better and more glitzy and glamorous. As I wrote last week, Abramovich’s money didn’t just change the game in England, it changed it across Europe.
Changed is too benign a word though. There has always been money in football and even benefactor owners. I’ve seen people talk about Jack Walker at Blackburn as a kind of precursor for what we have now, but the big difference was he was a lifelong fan of that club who used his personal wealth to try and improve them and bring them success. Abramovich tried to buy Sp*rs first, he was not a Chelsea fan, and any affinity he developed for the club came from how effectively it helped him wash his reputation.
The Premier League, the FA, Sky Sports, players, agents, they all saw Abramovich’s money as an opportunity. The bigger the product, the more you can charge, and when some bloke comes out of nowhere to splash mountains of cash to bring some of the biggest players in the world to one particular club, that product becomes even more attractive to viewers and advertisers and sponsors. It also – if you’ll excuse the phrasing – creates a kind of arms race, because in order to compete other clubs need to spend more.
When the baseline of the transfer market is skewed so significantly, it has an impact on everyone. If X player in ‘normal’ circumstances costs £25m and expects a wage of £100,000 a week, but Chelsea come along, pay £50m and pay him £200,000 a week, then it has a knock-on effect. Clubs value their players more highly, they demand higher transfer fees, while players and agents say ‘Well, if he’s getting that, I should get this’. Multiply that by 19 years and other super-rich owners and it’s no wonder we are where we are.
Another pernicious element of Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea was how it made that kind of ownership aspirational. The idea that in order to compete at the top level you had to have an oligarch or a nation state in charge who would fudge the finances and get around the toothless FFP attempts by sponsoring their own clubs with other companies they own, paying way over market rates to do so. They’re so rich though, they can afford the best lawyers so even when they’re pulled up on such flagrant breaches of the rules, they can get away with it.
The glee with which Newcastle fans welcomed the Saudi Public Investment Fund was understandable in that context, informed as well by their complete disdain for the previous owner, but it required them to look the other way at the dismemberment of journalists, the war and the famine in Yemen, human rights abuses, and so much more. Does it sit so easy for them this morning? Maybe not, but maybe they just won’t care less – because right now Britain and Saudi Arabia are ‘positively’ linked, arms deals and all the rest. It might change though, and if at some point sanctions are imposed and Newcastle end up like Chelsea, they can’t plead ignorance.
Going back to David Conn’s article, and how football looked the other way: I think there has to be serious scrutiny of those in charge, those who made those decisions, and opened this Pandora’s box of ownership from which they, personally and collectively, benefitted hugely. All of them, from the Premier League to the broadcasters, politicians and prime ministers, right up as far as UEFA and FIFA who paid lip service to the idea of sporting integrity throughout this period. The impact on football has been seismic, and not in a good way.
Where I might take slight issue is the idea that as a collective, football fans did likewise. What choice was there for most of us? Chelsea fans loved it, we hated Chelsea because we knew – not just where the money came from – but how, when it came right down to it, there was a sense they were playing with cheat codes. Again though, what could be done?
One thing that is barely mentioned is how aggressively litigious people like Abramovich are/were. Without going into details, I’ve been on the receiving end of correspondence from his high-powered solicitors. Similarly, when Alisher Usmanov was on the scene at Arsenal, his legal people kept a close eye on any stories that involved/mentioned him, ready to send letters demanding deletions and corrections. They made it extremely difficult, nigh on impossible, for the regular Joe to speak out, and in the absence of larger organisations taking a stand, dissent was shut down. Sounds like a very familiar tactic, eh?
As for what happens now, who knows? There’ll be Abramo-drama, fun times on Twitter taking the mickey out of Chelsea who haven’t been slow to lord it over everyone else with their money that came from a man who is ‘involved in destabilising Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine‘, but the stark reality is something we all have to reckon with as Chelsea fans continue to sing his name like he’s some kind of hero.
Two million people made refugees by this invasion, thousands dead – innocent mothers, fathers, children slaughtered by rockets and tanks. Cities destroyed. Attacks on nuclear power plants. Who gives a fish’s tit about Chelsea’s sponsors or whether they have to take the bus at this point?
If this doesn’t spark a serious rethink about who should be allowed own football clubs, then what on earth will? I don’t even mean who will own them in the future, but who owns them now and what they are involved in that should disqualify them immediately. It feels a bit like the closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, but this can’t simply be about Chelsea and Abramovich, because that would – just like his arrival – require everyone to look the other way, and it’s high time we faced up to the mess that has been created.
I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast, chatting to Clive Palmer about Chelsea, sanctions, and a load of Arsenal stuff too.