October 11, 2022

Iimagine that we start again. Imagine this was a world where professional sports were in their infancy and even the concept of a league was controversial in case it put people first to win. Imagine having a vague sense that the clubs in this new competition could represent their local areas, that they could come and perform some sort of community function. Who would you direct them to?

Could it be a fabulously wealthy Russian who made his fortune exploiting the economic chaos that followed a period of political turmoil to buy up his country’s oil and gas reserves and who has been accused – although he has vigorously denied – of having close ties to the autocratic regime of that leading country?

How about the investment fund of a Middle Eastern state that is engaged in a brutal war with one of its neighbors, whose president told the Atlantic this month that if he had ordered the murder of a journalist for an American newspaper, which he certainly did not do because frankly this guy was small fry, his boys would have done better?

Or what about an investment group headed by another member of a Middle Eastern royal family, whose purpose in investing in the club was, as a Human Rights Watch report put it, to “to build a public relations image of a progressive and dynamic Gulf state, which distracts from what is really happening in the country”?

Probably not. But it wouldn’t be an American family either who put a club in debt for £660m as part of their takeover. Nor would it be a hedge fund that tried to trademark the city’s name and set out to tear down sports structures dating back more than a century for financial gain.

You would probably also exclude tax exiles, absentee businessmen and entrepreneurs with ties to the oligarchs. Take out the professional players, one of whom was named in the Panama Papers, and we’re left with a TV boss (One is Fun?) the Premier League.

Which brings us to a fundamental question: what is a good owner? For the most vocal, all that matters is how much money they spend. If there are any Chelsea fans who doubt Roman Abramovich was a good owner, they have been very quiet; the anger over the situation they find themselves in is directed at the government, not the former governor of Chukotka.

But the sanctions are the result of the same forces that allowed Abramovich to loan Chelsea £1.5billion, seemingly with no prospect of repayment.

Chelsea fans with a banner supporting Roman Abramovich.
Chelsea fans with a banner in support of Roman Abramovich ahead of the game at Burnley. Photograph: Craig Brough/Reuters

If you didn’t protest Glen Johnson’s signing in 2003, can you really protest the current restrictions? This is the deal the clubs accept when they take the money. And while it’s certainly possible to sympathize with the fan who just wants to turn on the TV after a hard day’s work and watch their team or head to the bridge and have a few pints without having to worry about geopolitics, that sentiment is sorely tested by those who abuse MPs for raising questions about their owners in parliament or who harass journalists (and, far worse, the widows of victims) for voicing their concerns, or add the flags of authoritarian regimes to their Twitter bio.

But was Abramovich a good owner, even in terms of football? Everything will depend on what happens next. It may be, if a sale is quickly completed and the new owner is equally generous, that he can be seen to have brought not only five Premier Leagues and two Champions Leagues, but to have permanently raised the standard of Chelsea. from elegant contenders to undoubted giants. It is also possible, however, that he could become a luxury version of Sacha Gaydamak, under whom Portsmouth won the FA Cup but slipped into financial troubles from which he has yet to fully emerge.

If a good landlord isn’t the guy who gives you £1.5billion but could be penalized for being, as the Financial Sanctions Enforcement Office put it, “involved in… . undermine and threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine”, who is it? Not a foreign state seeking to improve its image, but also not a hedge fund or a plutocrat whose only interest is financial profit.

Who leaves what? A fan-made-good happy to give something back to his community? Some do exist, but their resources are necessarily limited – and the idea that the gravel-voiced haulers and junkies who owned clubs 60 years ago represents some sort of utopia is clearly misguided.

This is the absurdity of modern football. The Premier League is the most popular league in the world; no league has generated so much revenue. More people are watching football in England than ever before. Yet across the pyramid, clubs are struggling, with fans begging for sugar daddies. This is the consequence of the era ushered in by Abramovich’s takeover, decoupling a club’s investment capacity from the revenue it can generate itself.

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If we did it again, who would own the clubs? It’s easy to talk about fan ownership and 50+1s and golden stocks, but can modern fans be trusted that they won’t turn to the next billionaire promising to end this which is absurdly described as their suffering, these inadmissible seasons of dancing in the middle of the table? Modern football is often beautiful, but structurally and morally the game is rotten. If we started again, it might be a very good thing.

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