It's better to focus on what Abramovich's Chelsea statement didn't say

OLIVER HOLT: It’s better to focus on what Roman Abramovich’s shock Chelsea statement did NOT say – no regret Russia invaded Ukraine. No distancing from Putin. No regret for putting his players in a terrible position

  • Saudi-owned Newcastle United played Brentford in west London on Saturday 
  • Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has a close association with Vladamir Putin
  • The oligarch’s side play Liverpool in Carabao Cup final at Wembley on Sunday
  • Football has maintained a cosy relationship with rich oppressors for too long

This weekend, as Kyiv fought and Kyiv burned and Kyiv mourned, London got busy washing away blood with a festival of laundering. 

On Saturday, Saudi Arabia, in the shape of their vassal football state, Newcastle United, came to the west of the city to play Brentford in a Premier League match. That was just the prelude to the real fun.

On Sunday , Chelsea, the plaything of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and crony of the president, Vladimir Putin, take part in the first showpiece of the season, the Carabao Cup final, against Liverpool at Wembley. 

Flagrant exercises in soft power are everywhere. They have become the city’s selling point these days.

Saudi Arabia, in the shape of their vassal football state, Newcastle United, came to the west of the city to play Brentford (pictured co-owner Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi)

Chelsea, owned by Roman Abramovich, play Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday

London never did have an emotive nickname like the City of Light or the Eternal City or the City of Angels. The Big Smoke is about as good as it ever got. Now, it is awash with so much Russian money that some call it Londongrad or Moscow-on-Thames. 

And this weekend, as the world turns its eyes to the columns of smoke rising above Ukraine, London has got another name. This weekend, it is the World Capital of Sportswashing.

Chelsea is not state-owned as Newcastle effectively is, of course, and that is an important distinction but the close association between Abramovich and a Russian leader who is already causing untold suffering in Ukraine is more than enough to make many Chelsea fans and the rest of the English game feel distinctly queasy.

Abramovich (left) has a close association with Russian president Vladamir Putin (right)

Even Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea coach, admitted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had cast a pall over his club and the build-up to Sunday’s final. ‘We should not pretend that this is not an issue,’ Tuchel said.

 ‘The situation in general, for me and for my staff and for everybody here at Cobham, for the players, is horrible. It clouds our minds and our focus, it’s clouding excitement towards the final and it brings huge uncertainty.

‘To a degree I can understand it and the critical opinions towards the club, towards us who represent that club. I can understand that and we cannot fully free ourselves from it. 

‘At the moment we don’t feel responsible for all this. We feel that it is horrible and there can be no doubt about it. War in Europe was unthinkable for me for a long period.’

Thomas Tuchel (right) says Chelsea ‘feel horrible’ about the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned up the heat on Abramovich’s ownership of Chelsea higher than it has ever been turned up before. 

Last week, Labour MP Chris Bryant called for Abramovich to be sanctioned and stripped of his ownership of the club. 

‘Surely Mr Abramovich should no longer be able to own a football club in this country?’ Bryant said. ‘Surely we should be looking at seizing some of his assets, including his £150 million home.’

That, presumably, was part of the reason why Abramovich released a statement on Saturday evening saying he was ‘giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable Foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC’. 

The statement caused a stir, which was its purpose, and it was a clever piece of public relations but it means very little. Abramovich was moving to protect an asset in case the UK Government comes after him. He was trying to protect Chelsea from the pariah status its association with him is now inviting. He is feeling the heat but he still owns the club.

Perhaps it would be more useful to focus on what Abramovich’s statement did not say.

 He did not express any regret that Russia had invaded Ukraine. He did not express any regret that Russian forces were murdering innocent Ukrainian civilians. He did not distance himself from Putin. 

Abramovich released a statement on Saturday evening saying he was ‘giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable Foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC’

He did not express, in a statement about Chelsea, that his country’s actions have put Tuchel and his players in a ‘terrible’ position ahead of Sunday’s game.

Because what do Chelsea do now? Presumably taking to the pitch at Wembley draped in Ukrainian flags, as Everton and Manchester City did at Goodison yesterday, would be a little embarrassing, given their owner’s association with the invader. Do they attempt any show of sympathy for Ukraine’s plight? Presumably not. Do they just ignore it?

What a shameful, shameful mess. This is what English football has become. This is what we have let the Premier League become. 

We have got awfully good at letting butchers and tyrants and kleptocrats and oligarchs use us for their own ends. We have got awfully good at turning the other way when these people use our great football clubs to camouflage what their governments are doing at home.

It is easier to turn the other way. It is easier to look at the ownership of our clubs and say, ‘Who cares where the money’s coming from?’ 

I know. I did it myself some years ago. But this is what happens when you turn the other way. 

This is the price that English football pays: it finds it hard to look at itself in the mirror without recoiling in horror.

He did not acknowledge that  his country’s actions have put Tuchel and his players in a ‘terrible’ position

I do not mean this as an insult to Tuchel or the Chelsea players or the Chelsea fans but imagine how it will feel if the club of a Russian oligarch, a club owned by a man who used to be part of the Russian state apparatus when he was governor of the far eastern province of Chukotka for seven years at the turn of the century, lifts the first major trophy of the English football season on Sunday. 

Imagine how it will feel if Chelsea triumph on a day when Kyiv is besieged by Russian forces, and brave Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are being killed in the fighting. Abramovich will not be at Wembley, apparently. It was reported that he flew home to Russia soon after Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine.

It will not be a good look for our game but then our game stopped caring about how things look a long time ago, a long time before the Premier League rolled out the red carpet for a Saudi regime that murders journalists, represses minorities, makes homosexuality punishable by death and persecutes women who protest about being treated as second class citizens.

Manchester City have not emerged well from this, either. The United Arab Emirates abstained in the vote on a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and City’s majority shareholder, Sheik Mansour, is the deputy prime minister of the UAE.

Man City’s majority shareholder, Sheikh Mansour, is the deputy prime minister of the UAE

That did not stop City’s players wrapping themselves in the Ukrainian flag at Goodison and they deserve credit for standing by their team-mate, Oleksandr Zinchenko, who is Ukrainian. 

But Zinchenko, who attended anti-war protests in Manchester last week and was in tears before kick-off, would have been even more heartened had the man who owns his club been able to persuade the UAE to condemn Russia’s invasion. 

The light is starting to shine more and more fiercely on these regimes and their place in our sporting firmament. It is time that we woke up. It is time that the Premier League woke up. It is time that Uefa woke up. It is time that Fifa woke up. We have been complacent for too long.

It was a necessary and welcome first step that St Petersburg was stripped of the right to host the Champions League final at the end of May, with the game being handed instead to Paris. It was also a welcome step that Manchester United ended their lucrative sponsorship deal with Russian state airline Aeroflot. 

But that should be just the start. Football, like the Olympics, has maintained a cosy, fawning relationship with rich oppressors for too long. 

The IOC and its president Thomas Bach have lost all credibility and respect because of their continuing obsequiousness to both Russia and China. 

Russia are supposed to be banned from the Olympics and yet they laugh in the face of that ban, with their athletes allowed to compete under the absurd banner of the Russia Olympic Committee.

Football is no better. As Bach has grovelled to Beijing, so Fifa president Gianni Infantino has prostrated himself in front of Putin. 

Football has increasingly been infiltrated by Russian money and the prominence of the part state-owned Russian gas giant Gazprom in the Champions League branding has been the most visible evidence of that influence. 

News emerged on Friday night that Uefa are consulting with their lawyers over the possibility of ending their sponsorship deal with Gazprom.

The game has to go further. There can be no possibility of allowing Spartak Moscow to continue competing in the Europa League, where they have been drawn against RB Leipzig in the round of 16. Spartak are Russia’s best-supported team. Their expulsion will not go unnoticed. 

The Russia men’s national side, who are due to compete with Poland, Sweden and Czech Republic in next month’s World Cup qualifying play-offs, must also be removed from any chance of playing in Qatar this winter. 

Poland stated unequivocally yesterday that they would not play Russia next month because of the invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s women must be booted out of the European Championship before it begins this summer, too.

Poland have announced they do not intend to play their World Cup play-off match next month against Russia

It is to be hoped that English football supporters can see beyond football tribalism when it comes to demonstrating their opposition to the barbarity of the Russian advances in Ukraine, too, although perhaps that is a forlorn hope. Even yesterday, when it emerged that the Wembley arch would be lit in blue and yellow to express solidarity with Ukraine, the authorities were said to be worried that the gesture might ‘aggravate’ sections of Chelsea fans.

Because even if lighting up arches and cancelling sponsorships and moving the Champions League final to a new venue and cancelling the Russian Grand Prix are just gestures, gestures are all sport has got as the bombs rain death down on Kyiv and the people of Ukraine are left to try to defy the invaders.

Maybe one day, English football will learn. Maybe one day, it will be less supine. Maybe one day, it will be more selective in its genuflection to money. Maybe one day, it will choose its masters carefully.

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