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The decision taken by the UK government to freeze the assets of the Russian oligarch and owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, is surely one of the most remarkable political interventions in the history of modern football....

11th March 2022
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The decision taken by the UK government to freeze the assets of the Russian oligarch and owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich, is surely one of the most remarkable political interventions in the history of modern football, writes Dr David Webber, the Course Leader of Solent’s BSc (Hons) Football Studies degree.

It is a decision, Dr Webber adds, that Chelsea supporters, the club – and the Premier League – must have feared the most. But, he adds, it is also a decision that also asks profound questions as to football’s relationship with politics.

“For Chelsea supporters, many of whom will no longer be able to attend Stamford Bridge, these sanctions will hasten the end to Roman’s empire. Abramovich has bankrolled what is without doubt the most successful period in the club’s history, and fans will now wonder what is next. With Chelsea unable to buy new players, and presumably unable to extend the contracts of those in their existing squad, the club faces an exodus of talent and an uncertain future on and off the pitch.”

It also raises serious questions over the future, in particular, of the club’s head coach, Thomas Tuchel.

“Having led the West London club to glory in the UEFA Champions League last May, and the FIFA World Club Championship only a few weeks ago, Tuchel – clearly troubled by the unfolding situation in Ukraine – will have no shortage of suitors and offers from rival clubs were he to leave.”

Dr Webber also notes concerns over the future of Chelsea’s highly successful women’s team.

“A flurry of domestic titles and an appearance in last year’s Women’s Champions League final has also been underwritten by Abramovich’s investment in the club. While it might be argued that this spending on the women’s team has been used to offset the club’s overall Financial Fair Play liabilities, the comparative precarity of women’s football means that Chelsea’s female players and coaching staff are likely to be disproportionately impacted by these sanctions.”

For Dr Webber, however, it is the Premier League itself which perhaps faces the biggest questions.

“In what was always a hopelessly naive attempt to keep apart football and politics, the Premier League has long maintained a position of ‘ownership neutrality’. Yet, as we saw following the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United last year, this has long left the Premier League lacking in any moral integrity in dealing with the political affiliations and ideologies of the owners of its member clubs.”

As Dr Webber reminds us, football and politics never have been nor could ever be kept separate.

“It is simply fantasy to think that any club owned by someone with such political connections is somehow innocent of or untainted by the wealth and power that such relationships have yielded. And any governing body, like the Premier League, prepared to overlook the human cost of such relationships, is complicit in their outcomes.”

The reaction from the West, and from the football community in particular to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine has underlined the unescapable political character of football.

“Calling for peace is a political statement”, Dr Webber adds. “Showing solidarity with Ukraine is a political statement. But football’s relationship with politics goes much further than flying the Ukrainian flag or dealing with one or two Russian oligarchs.”

“Football cannot be selective in its morality, or who or what it stands in solidarity with.

“From Saudi bombs falling on Yemen to the deaths of thousands of migrant workers building stadiums for this year’s World Cup, football and its governing bodies cannot cherry-pick its politics.

“Sanctions against Abramovich are just the start. If football – quite rightly called ‘the people’s game’ – is to apply a universal framework of rights and freedoms for the billions who play and watch the game across the globe, then it must urgently reconsider its own relationship with money and power. It needs to reappraise its own complicity in those regimes that have used football to legitimise and ‘sports wash’ grave human rights abuses and other acts of aggression.”

Dr David Webber BA (Hons), MA, PhD, FHEA is a course leader at Solent University, Southampton, senior lecturer on the Football Performance and Participation programme, and a member of the Solent Identities and Inequalities Research Group.

David’s research continues his original interest in British politics and IPE, but has developed to examine the political, economic and cultural changes that English football has undergone over the past 30 years.