Initially, it all seemed rather normal. Millions of people across the world tuned in to watch a Premier League match between two quality sides at Stamford Bridge, one of English football’s great theatres.
Chelsea played host to Newcastle United in a closely-fought encounter that saw the home side nick all three points with a late, and controversial, Kai Havertz winner. However, the narrative of the game was not defined by Havertz’s excellent moment of skill, nor by the malignant role of VAR which saw him stay on the pitch when perhaps he shouldn’t have. Nor was it defined by other sub-plots, whether the Toon Army’s recent resurrection under Eddie Howe, or the rich history that both clubs possess. It was defined, pejoratively, by their owners.
On one side, Chelsea, owned by the super-rich oligarch Roman Abramovich, who had just been sanctioned by the British Government following the Russian invasion of Ukraine due to his links with President Putin. On the other, Newcastle United, ostensibly owned by the PIF, in reality by Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian crown prince. Saudi Arabia, a nation that had executed 81 men just the day before. Saudi Arabia, a nation that eliminates free speech and criminalises the LGBTQ+ community. Saudi Arabia, a nation that continues to wage a brutal, indiscriminate war against Yemen.
The supporters of both clubs were not oblivious to this situation – rather, the tribalistic nature of supporting a football club saw it feature at the very centre of the match. Newcastle fans sung, with some of them draped in Saudi flags, about Abramovich being a “war offender”. The irony was seemingly lost on them.
The match was symptomatic not just of current world affairs, but of football ownership’s inexorably moral decline. Here were two teams funded by those who aid, and indeed perpetuate, tyranny, despotism, and a myriad of egregious human rights breaches.
Therefore, football, frankly, needs to examine its own relationship with money. What are the consequences on football as an institution when Amnesty International labels the Saudi takeover as a “clear attempt… to sportswash their appalling human rights record”? What are the geopolitical consequences, when those who harbour or help anti-Western agendas, such as Abramovich, are able to funnel their funds into Western businesses, and be popularly lauded as a result?
In football, money conquers all, but it really shouldn’t. Authorities, whether the FA or government officials, need to wake up to this reality, that owners of this ilk should not be acquiesced with nor welcomed with open arms.
The truth is it does deep, perhaps irreparable, damage to the game, and wider society as a whole. The issue of the morality of football ownership rose into the national conscious through the European Super League farce – yet, that brazen, egotistical attempt at truly consolidating football as a capitalist vanity project truly pales into insignificance when compared with sportswashing used to normalise and legitimise vile injustices across the world.
For the British Government, what does it do for the country’s soft power when one of its great institutions and exports, the Premier League, is subverted and undermined by foreign owners who exploit the sport and league for malign purposes?
Thus, change is needed. Amidst the perpetual gloom, fear, and angst of Russia’s abhorrent invasion of Ukraine, Britain has the opportunity to reform, for the greater good, one of its most important products.
The fit-and-proper owners test has long been, ironically, unfit for purpose. Not only does it fail in its basic principle of ensuring the security of football clubs, as supporters of the likes of Bolton and Macclesfield Town would attest to, but it also fails to consider geopolitical contexts which are of as profound importance as proof of funds.
This must change, whether through FA innovation or government intervention. No club of Chelsea’s calibre should ever have to be in such a situation where their day-to-day running is under threat.
Indeed, this can be a method of depoliticising an aspect of football that has drifted into the political. The likes of Thomas Tuchel and Eddie Howe are football men; they should not have to defend the indefensible for fear of losing their jobs. Sport should be a recluse from the strains of geopolitics, not a vector for the dissemination of the ideals of one group or another. Change, therefore, in the structure of football ownership, is imperative.
Image: Mark Freeman via Flickr