Tuesday, April 16

Roman Abramovich and Chelsea symbolize the rotten state of football | Chelsea

Iimagine we were starting again. Imagine this was a world when professional sport was in its infancy and even the concept of a league was controversial in case it made people overprioritise winning. Imagine you had a vague sense the clubs in this new competition might represent their local areas, that they might come to fulfill some sort of community function. Who would you want running them?

Would it be a fabulously rich 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 was accused – although he strenuously denied it – of having close ties to that country’s autocratic leader?

How about the investment fund of a Middle Eastern state that is engaged in a brutal war with one of its neighbours, the chair of which told the Atlantic this month that if he had ordered the murder of a journalist for a US newspaper, which he definitely didn’t because frankly this guy was small fry, his boys would have made a better job of it?

Or what about an investment group run by another member of a Middle Eastern royal family, whose purpose in investing in the club was, as a Human Rights Watch report had it, to “construct a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country”?

Probably not. But then neither would it be a US family who saddled a club with £660m of debt as part of its takeover. Nor would it be a hedge fund that tried to trademark the name of the city and dabbled with destroying sporting structures stretching back more than a century for financial gain.

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You would probably rule out tax exiles, absentee businessmen and entrepreneurs with links to oligarchs as well. Take out the professional gamblers, one of whom was named in the Panama Papersand we are left with a TV chef (One is Fun?) – and there’s at least a small caucus thoroughly bored by Norwich’s pedestrian yo-yoing between the Championship and 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 has been a good owner they have been very quiet; the anger about the situation they find themselves in has been aimed at the government, not the former governor of Chukotka.

But the sanctions are a result of the same forces that allowed Abramovich to loan Chelsea £1.5bn, apparently with no view to it being paid back.

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

If you didn’t protest about the signing of Glen Johnson in 2003, can you really protest about the present restrictions? This is the deal 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 pop along to the Bridge and have a couple of pints without having to concern themselves with geopolitics, that feeling is strained by those who abuse MPs for raising questions about their owners on parliament or hound journalists (and, far worse, the widows of victims) for expressing concerns, or add the flags of authoritarian regimes to their Twitter bios.

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But was Abramovich a good owner even in football terms? Much will depend on what happens next. It may be, if a sale is quickly agreed and the new owner is similarly generous, that he can be regarded as having not only brought five Premier Leagues and two Champions Leagues, but as having permanently raised Chelsea’s level from stylish pretenders to undoubted giants. It’s also possible, though, that he could become a luxury version of Sacha Gaydamak, under whom Portsmouth won the FA Cup but slipped into financial problems from which they are yet fully to emerge.

If a good owner is not the bloke who gives you £1.5bn but might be sanctioned for being, as the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation had it, “involved in… undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine,” who is it? Not a foreign state looking to improve its image, but also not a hedge fund or plutocrat whose only interest is financial profit.

Which leaves what? A fan-made-good happy to give something back to their community? Some do exist, but their resources are necessarily limited – and the idea the gravel-voiced hauliers and scrap-metal merchants who owned clubs 60 years ago represents some sort of utopia is clearly flawed.

That is the absurdity of modern football. The Premier League is the most popular league in the world; no league has generated so much income. More people watch football in England than ever before. Yet throughout the pyramid clubs are struggling, fans begging for sugar daddies. That is the consequence of the era the Abramovich takeover inaugurated, decoupling a club’s capacity to invest from the revenues it can raise itself.

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If we were starting again who would own clubs? It’s easy to talk of fan ownership, 50+1 and golden shares, but could modern fans be trusted not to roll over for the first billionaire to come promising to end what is preposterously described as their suffering, those unconscionable seasons of bobbing along in mid -table? Modern football is often beautiful, but structurally and morally the game is rotten. If we were starting again, it might be a very good thing.


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