Sunday, December 10, 2023

War and Premier League oligarchy

Arsenal news is thin on the ground. Mikel Arteta’s press conference is tomorrow. And there is big football news in Premier League terms after Roman Abramovich announced he’d be selling Chelsea.

I’ve wrestled with what’s been happening in the world for the last week or so and whether or not to talk about it on the blog. I felt for my own peace of mind, it was better to have a kind of ‘safe haven’, a place to escape from it, not least because of the week that was in it on a personal level. Yesterday was the first anniversary of my dad’s passing, and it’s been quite surreal to think that a year has gone by. It feels like it all just happened yesterday.

But that feels like a drop in the ocean when you think about what the people in Ukraine are going through. The absolute horror of it is unthinkable to me. That this is happening sort of on our doorstep here in Europe is scary. Then I feel like an idiot in some ways because I’m quite aware that war and the oppression of innocent people is happening elsewhere too.

I see efforts to help Ukrainian people and I’m glad for them and I applaud those efforts but if we can help them why can’t we help so many more? We have to go through life in a state of cognitive dissonance which is part of the reason these conflicts exist and are sustained. It’s easier to be concerned about Putin’s aggression in Ukraine because it’s close to home. If it’s far away, we can close our eyes to it, or think ‘That’s sad’ then get on with our relatively comfortable lives.

I don’t know where the line is between trying to help in a somewhat practical way and assuaging low-lying guilt, but there are aid agencies and NGOs who do vital work in these areas, to try and assist the people who need it most. Maybe I’m fooling myself into thinking my contributions will be of any tangible benefit, but I don’t know what else I can do.

That cognitive dissonance also applies to football. I’ve written about it before, how we all have to bend our moral compass to some degree or another. We can talk about other owners and oligarchs and nation states, but we have our own things to reckon with at Arsenal too. I don’t think they’re as serious as some others, but when our main sponsor and stadium naming partner is the airline of Dubai where homosexuality is illegal, that’s an example of what I mean. The club itself is inclusive in many brilliant ways (Rainbow Laces, support for GayGooners etc) – as it should be – but we still take that money because that’s just how it works.

Abramovich absolutely changed English football, and perhaps we’ve become so used to him and Chelsea that we don’t really stop and think about how much. Now, fans of every club want a billionaire, an oligarch, an energy magnate, even an entire country to take them over and spend, spend, spend. That’s what he did at Chelsea at first. He arrived, unloaded his bank accounts on the transfer markets across Europe, and set us on a course to where we are now.

In 2003, as the newly minted Chelsea pursued the best talent, including massive bids for Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, then vice-chairman David Dein said:

Roman Abramovich has parked his Russian tank in our front garden and is firing £50 notes at us.

Almost 20 years later, there’s something quite prescient about that phrasing. Abramovich opened the door for the likes of Qatar to buy PSG; Abu Dhabi Group to fund Man City’s unnatural growth; and this season the Saudi Arabian takeover of Newcastle.

When that was happening, I saw Newcastle fans pilloried for their support of it, and on a surface level I can understand that. But as I wrote at the time, why place the blame on fans for reacting to an environment which has been created and allowed to fester by the Premier League and the British government? If there had been the same scrutiny on these deals as there was to fan reaction of it them, maybe football would be in a better place, but it sold its soul to the highest bidder a long time ago and now look at it. Look at it. It doesn’t really matter who you are, what you do, what you stand for, or anything else, once you have enough money you’re welcome as a Premier League owner, partner, sponsor, and all the rest.

There is a direct line between where we are right now and Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea. It provided him with a kind of respectability which was exactly the point. I don’t want to go into the nuts and bolts of it because oligarchs are litigious people at the best of times, but we all understand the reasons behind his takeover. We understood them back then too, let’s be honest, but it didn’t matter one bit to the people who had the ability to do anything about it. Then it just became sort of accepted that this was the way it was and what could any of us do about it anyway?

Now, those connections, and the way that money was made, are under intense scrutiny. Arsenal’s own dalliance with oligarchy, after David Dein sold his shares to Alisher Usmanov, created a board-room cold war at Arsenal that lasted the best part of a decade, and was genuinely harmful to the way we operated. It hindered our progress and ultimately played a significant part in the stagnation of this football club.

I look at stories about German authorities confiscating Usmanov’s super-yacht, and I wonder why if their boats can be taken, why not their football clubs? I guess there has to be the will to do it, and I think it’s easy to put 2 and 2 together in that regard when it comes to this British government. On paper it looks like a fine idea that ‘net proceeds’ of Abramovich’s sale of Chelsea will go to a charitable foundation to help ‘all victims of the war in Ukraine’, but even that is part of the veneer. There are already charities out there, he could just as easily help them.

I am sorry this has all got a bit heavy, but as Chelsea fans celebrated titles and trophies – as they were perfectly entitled to do – I don’t think Abramovich’s investment has ever properly been discussed in terms of how seismically it altered the game, the money, the expectations and demands of fans, and so much more.

It was no longer about sporting success, but a race to the bottom to mine for the biggest pot of natural gas or oil-tinted gold. It’s sad really, and now he’ll be gone, a footnote in football history, but the change his money made will live forever because the genie is well and truly out of the bottle now and there’s no going back.

Solidarity to all who find themselves under attack, oppressed, and persecuted.


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