Jhere couldn’t be a better way to sum up the rotten state of English football than the moral vacuum that was at the heart of that strange and heartbreaking occasion at Stamford Bridge, where a capacity crowd showed up to watch a club with a disqualified owner take on another backed by a nation’s public investment fund that executed 81 people on Saturday.
It was a dark day for anyone who cares about the soul of the game. No amount of sportswashing could wipe away the putrid air hanging above this light fixture. Not when some Chelsea fans were still determined to sing their crass chants of support for Roman Abramovich, a man described by the British government as a pro-Kremlin oligarch with long-term ties to Vladimir Putin, and the sight of Chelsea flags. ‘Saudi Arabia. in the Shed End served as further proof of the soft power at play, making Newcastle merely a useful tool for a repressive regime hoping to clean up its reputation through sport.
This behavior, this buffoonish cognitive dissonance, can no longer be defended. There was a defiance that turned into sheer, blind arrogance, as evidenced by the home crowd who woke up in the second half and sang Abramovich’s praises, even now they saw the government accuse him of to be involved in the destabilization of Ukraine by supplying steel which could have been used to build Russian tanks (a claim which has been denied).
A reminder: Abramovich is not a hero. Nineteen years ago, he arrived unexpectedly to buy a football club and transform it with his billions. He was a mystery then and only now that Ukraine has been subjected to the monstrous invasion of Russia has the source of Abramovich’s wealth been openly questioned so widely, which led to the sanctions which left Chelsea worried about falling into administration after being granted a special license by the government to continue operating.
These are undoubtedly nerve-wracking times for the world champions. For nearly two decades, they have known nothing but success. It all depends on Abramovich and his impact was even felt in that tense victory over Newcastle, with the decisive goal coming when Kai Havertz controlled a sumptuous pass from Jorginho and volleyed into the net, £112.5million sterling of talent combining to give Chelsea a win that keeps them on track to finish in the top four.
But still, it’s time to be grateful for the memories and move on. Take seriously the allegations that blood money funded this project; to remove the ‘Roman Era’ banner hanging from the Matthew Harding stand and accept that continuing to support this disgraced billionaire will only lead the outside world to believe that Chelsea fans care more about their team than the Ukrainian victims.
Similar principles apply to Newcastle fans, who were in high spirits after watching their team emerge from relegation troubles. They sought to shine a light on Chelsea’s new era of austerity, calling them ‘bankrupt boys’ and chanting ‘We’re richer than you’, but there was a stunning lack of awareness for them as they chanted that ‘Abramovich was a “war offender”. Hadn’t they heard of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen? Or did they just not care? Ignorance is no excuse.
After the match, Eddie Howe was repeatedly pressed on Newcastle property. Asked about these 81 executions, he clarified his position: he was only a humble football coach and was only there to talk about the match. It doesn’t matter where the money comes from. Let’s just talk about whether Newcastle were unlucky not to get a penalty in the second half.
Of course, the point Howe awkwardly missed was that football was no distraction on Sunday. The focus wasn’t on Havertz’s fine finish, Timo Werner’s errant first touch or Newcastle’s improved defence. The game cannot escape the geopolitical edge now. Just look at Chelsea, where they had to close the club shop, stop selling programs and cap travel costs for away games after facing heavy restrictions due to Abramovich sanctions.
None of this was normal and the only hope is that the events of the past two weeks serve as a reckoning for English football: a realization that the Premier League needs to develop a backbone and be stronger to know who is considered as a fit and proper person to own a club. It’s time to start asking the right questions. The stench won’t go away until it happens.