European Football

Looking In The Mirror

On Roman Abramovich’s sale of Chelsea, football fans’ introspection regarding the state of the game, and the blurred lines between football and geopolitics…

We could truly be reaching the end of an era.

Roman Abramovich, the controversial Russian billionaire oligarch who has been the owner of Chelsea Football Club since 2003, has announced today that he will be looking to sell Chelsea in the immediate future. This has come following pressure related to current events (which we will discuss soon, keep them in the front of your mind) which led to Abramovich turning over custody of the football club before later announcing his decision to sell.

This is momentous. The transformation of Chelsea under Abramovich cannot be overstated. Chelsea have won 32 major honors (first division titles + FA Cups + League Cups + Charity/Community Shields + European/International trophies) in their history. 21 of those have come under the custodianship of Abramovich, which notably includes both of Chelsea’s European Cups, both of their Europa League titles, a Club World Cup, more than half of their FA Cups, and all but one of their league titles. Since Abramovich took over, no English team has won more major honors than Chelsea. Chelsea went from a pretty good team stuck in the shadow of Ferguson’s United and Wenger’s Arsenal to being one of the best and biggest clubs in the world, with a team of global stars followed by a global fanbase that cheers on the team at all hours of the day. His ownership has been transformative, and he will certainly go down as one of the best owners in football and will have a special place among the annals of Premier League history as being one of the men most responsible for making the league what it is today.

And it is that final statement that works in multiple ways, and not all of them good. The title explains it, this is a time for us to look in the mirror at the current state of this game. Whether it is the exploding transfer fees and player wages, the decreasing parity within the European game, and the momentum gathered behind the Super League (which Chelsea supported), those diseases of modern football can be traced back to Abramovich’s acquisition of Chelsea.

While the current absurdity of the modern transfer market was not directly kicked off by Abramovich, he certainly helped build us up to that point. Within months of purchasing Chelsea, Abramovich helped break the club’s all-time transfer fee record with the acquisition of Hernán Crespo from Inter. A year later, it was broken again by the acquisition of Didier Drogba from Marseille. Two years later, Chelsea set an English transfer record with the acquisition of Andriy Shevchenko from AC Milan. Dotted around those were moves for the likes of Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho which slowly ratcheted up the cash movement for players in the league.

Which brings us to now, where Chelsea have probably one of the five most expensive squads in the world while being responsible for a quarter of the 20 most expensive incoming transfers in Premier League history. This steady climb has been fed into by Abramovich, and the start can really be traced back to his arrival in England. Yes, Chelsea have not spent to the degree of Man City or Man United, and yes, the moves that really destroyed the market were not carried out by Chelsea, but Abramovich’s aggressive Chelsea ambitions have always fed into it. The modern Premier League may have reached its coming of age moment with the arrival of City Football Group, but it was born into the world the day Abramovich showed up in West London. The financial behemoth that has grown to world-conquering heights, the entities that seemingly view themselves as so superior to the rest of the continent that they wanted to form their own league, the idea of the global super club owned by the super owner that dwarfed over the competition was born from Abramovich’s ambitions and endless money reserves.

While clubs like Chelsea and others bask in the glow of their gold-plated everythings, many other clubs are plunged into difficult financial situations. The gap between the haves and have-nots in the world of football has never been wider, and the lack of parity and sheer predictability of the sport, the reason why we so celebrate the increasingly rare underdog moments, has only gotten worse and worse over the years, and all of these growing issues can be traced back to Abramovich. The man was a catalyst. He helped change football forever in so many ways, good and bad, in growth and decline. He will forever be the architect of Chelsea’s Golden Era, but he might also be the kickstarter of the darkest periods of modern football.

But there is likely something that is going to be lost in the shuffle of all of this. All of the celebration, deserving in many ways, of Abramovich’s success at Chelsea will effectively sweep the most important aspect of this under the rug, so I implore you to keep this in mind. It is very important to remember why Roman Abramovich is selling Chelsea. Not the vague details or Cliffs Notes summary of how we got here, I mean really remember WHY this is all happening.

And to know why this is happening, you must remember who Roman Abramovich really is and, more importantly, what he represents.

There is a war going on in Ukraine. We all know the headlines, but I am going to repeat for emphasis. The Russian Federation, ruled by a brutal dictator named Vladimir Putin, chose to lead a scorched Earth invasion of a neighboring country with the aims of conquering and oppressing the population. Thousands of people are dead, thousands have taken up arms to fight for their right to live freely, and millions more are fleeing homes that they might never see again, kickstarting what is going to be a humanitarian crisis that European nations will have to figure out how to solve. Towns and cities have been destroyed, lives have been forever changed, and families have been separated as a result of Russia’s power-hungry desires. The blood of thousands of Ukrainians is on the hands of Putin and all of those who have helped him build and support his current regime.

And that, relevantly, includes Roman Abramovich.

Many have talked in generalized terms about Abramovich’s relationship with Putin. Some might even assume that the current economic sanctions facing Abramovich, the real reason why he is selling Chelsea, are the result of him simply being rich and Russian. Well, that is not true. Abramovich is alleged to have a very significant relationship with Putin dating back over two decades, with Abramovich allegedly being the one who first recommended to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin that Putin should be his successor. He is alleged to have carried out interviews with potential cabinet members for Putin, as well as being someone who is deeply entangled in the financial web that makes up the Putin regime. Abramovich was one of the leading members of the Russian envoy on that famous night in Zürich when Russia were awarded the rights to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Putin even directly told Abramovich to help finance the 2018 tournament.

Abramovich has been one of the most effective tools for foreign policy and international relations that a country could ask for. His beaming smiling face in the director’s box at Stamford Bridge was a billboard for a modern Russia, one that was not insignificant in shielding some negative aspects of Putin’s rule. Even aside from his major influence within Russia’s World Cup bid, a tournament that certainly did a lot for Russia’s global perception and tourism, the sheer reverence for him within England due to his influence within the football world surely did something for Russia’s global perception and, directly, the perception of the country’s regime.

Yes, Abramovich is not a military general. He is not on the battlefield with the Russian military. He is not the one ordering the bombings of Ukrainian hospitals. But he is someone who has allegedly seriously aided Putin in building and maintaining his current power. As a result, he shares culpability for the crimes and horrors that Putin’s Russia has committed, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Those sanctions have been applied for a reason.

As much as people deplore discussions about sport and politics, and as loud as the “stick to sports” crowd can be, it is impossible to refute the reality that sport and politics, especially with football, have intersected multiple times throughout history and will continue to intersect in the future. You cannot have something so entrenched in the social, political, economic, and cultural histories of people, cities, and nations as football is without the lines between football and politics being at least blurred.

The utilization of football as political propaganda is not new. Former Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar never really cared for football, but he banned Eusébio and other top players from leaving the country because he recognized the propaganda potential that Benfica’s growing success in the 1950s and 1960s offered his regime, as SLB represented the greatness of Portugal to the continent. Francisco Franco was not himself a Real Madrid fan, nor did he manufacture the club’s early successes (despite what many in Catalonia and the Basque Country would have you believe), but Franco certainly benefitted from the propaganda potential that came with Real Madrid’s success in the 1950s and 1960s and certainly used Real Madrid as a symbol of his ideal Castilian Spain. Benito Mussolini and his regime heavily influenced reforms within the Italian Football Federation in the 1920s, with Mussolini aiming to utilize the national team as a method to project Italian strength to the world while uniting the nation behind the nationalistic rhetoric of sport fandom that could, and did, very quickly evolve into fascist support for war. Italy hosting the 1934 World Cup was largely part of Mussolini’s tactic to promote Italy and fascism to the world, similar to Nazi Germany’s goals in hosting the Summer Olympics two years later.

The idea that we call “sportswashing” is not new, and Abramovich certainly did not start it, but he was pretty dang good at it. But we as football fans need to look in the mirror, because sportswashing has carried on beyond the influence of Roman Abramovich. Arab Gulf states now own football teams, including two within the Premier League. The same Saudi Arabian government that ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and who are waging their own brutal war in Yemen recently financed the purchase Newcastle United, much to the joy of fans across England and the fascination of Premier League pundits who would rather fantasize about the unrealistic signings Newcastle could make than question the entity that they have welcomed into their league. Manchester City’s wealthy owners are largely accepted to be backed by the United Arab Emirates, and the widespread success of Man City has allowed Westerners to have positive feelings toward City Football Group and Sheikh Mansour and dream of vacations to Dubai instead of wondering about the death penalties for homosexuality in the UAE, or the horrid living conditions of the locals that prop up the tourism industry, or any of the other human rights issues in that country. Paris Saint-Germain are quite literally owned by the nation of Qatar, but the brilliant marketing work done by Nasser al-Khelaifi and Qatari Sport Investment have dramatically improved perceptions of the nation and were very influential in Qatar winning the rights to host the World Cup. Yes, the same World Cup that will be played in a country that also outlaws homosexuality by punishment of death and that will be played in stadiums that were constructed by what is basically slave labor.

He was not the first, he will most certainly not be the last, but the modern idea of sportswashing in football did indeed start with Abramovich. There is no City Football Group, no Qatari Sports Investment, without Roman Abramovich. It is impossible to discuss the Russian’s legacy in this sport without mentioning this.

Let us use this as an opportunity to look in the mirror, football fans. Roman Abramovich has changed the sport forever, and he most certainly is deserving of praise for how he has transformed Chelsea, but his legacy is not as rosy as some might say it is. Abramovich helped create the sport we have today. The mega-millionaire owners who want to destroy the foundations of our sport. The multi-million dollar transfer fees and multi-million dollar wages that have driven the clubs outside of the top one percent on the continent into spiraling debt. The regimes that use our football clubs as ways to wash away the stains of war, murder, and corruption from their hands.

Look in the mirror. Look at what our sport is becoming. Roman Abramovich has gone, but is he the only one who needs to leave?

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