Tuesday, March 28

Stamford Bridge hosts dark day for those who care for football’s soul | Chelsea

There cannot have been a better way to sum up the rotten state of English football than the moral vacuum that lay at the heart of this strange and upsetting occasion at Stamford Bridge, where a capacity crowd turned up to watch one club with a disqualified owner take on another backed by the public investment fund of a nation which executed 81 people on Saturday.

This was a dark day for anyone who cares about the game’s soul. No amount of sportswashing could make the putrid air hanging over this fixture disappear. Not when some Chelsea fans were still determined to belt out their boorish chants of support for Roman Abramovich, a man described by the UK government as a pro-Kremlin oligarch with long-term links to Vladimir Putin, and the sight of flags of Saudi Arabia in the Shed End served as further evidence of soft power at play, making Newcastle look like little more than a useful tool for a repressive regime hoping to cleanse its reputation through sport.

This behaviour, this farcical cognitive dissonance, cannot be defended any more. There was defiance spilling over into sheer blinkered arrogance, witnessed when the home crowd roused themselves in the second half and sang in praise of Abramovich, even now they have seen the government accuse him of being involved in destabilizing Ukraine by supplying steel which may have been used to build Russian tanks (a claim that has been denied).

A reminder: Abramovich is no hero. Nineteen years ago he turned up out of the blue to buy a football club and transform it with his billions of him. He was a mystery back then and it is only now that Ukraine has been subjected to Russia’s monstrous invasion that the source of Abramovich’s wealth has been openly questioned so widely, leading to the sanctions that have left Chelsea fretting about falling into administration after being granted a special license by the government to continue operating.

These are undoubtedly unnerving times for the world champions. For almost two decades they have known only success. It is all down to Abramovich and his impact was even felt in this tense win over Newcastle, the decisive goal arriving when Kai Havertz controlled a sumptuous pass from Jorginho and blasted a volley into the net, £112.5m worth of talent combining to give Chelsea a victory that keeps them on track to finish in the top four.

But still, it is time to be thankful for the memories and move on. To take seriously the allegations that bloodstained money has funded this project; to remove the “Roman Era” banner hanging in the Matthew Harding Stand and accept that continuing to back this disgraced billionaire will only make the outside world think that Chelsea fans care more about their team than Ukrainian victims.

Similar principles apply to Newcastle fans, who were in boisterous spirits after seeing their side spend their way out of relegation trouble. They looked to make light of Chelsea’s new era of austerity, branding them the “Bankrupt boys” and singing “We’re richer than you”, but there was a staggering lack of awareness to them chanting about Abramovich being a “war offender”. Had they not heard about Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen? Or did they simply not care? Ignorance is not an excuse.

After the game Eddie Howe was pressed repeatedly on Newcastle’s ownership. Asked about those 81 executions, he made his position clear: he was but a humble football manager and was only there to talk about the game. Never mind 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 clumsily missed is that the football was not a distraction on Sunday. The focus was not on Havertz’s lovely finish, Timo Werner’s errant first touch or Newcastle’s improved defending. The game cannot escape the geopolitical edge now. Just look at Chelsea, where they have had to shut the club shop, stop selling programs and cap travel costs for away games after being placed under heavy restrictions because of the sanctions on Abramovich.

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 must develop a spine and be stronger on who is deemed a fit and proper person to own to club. It is time to start asking proper questions. The stench will not go away until that happens.


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