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The Curious Case of Chelsea: Deserved or Double Standards?

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9 mins read
Explained: What does sanctions mean for Roman Abramovich and Chelsea

I am not a Chelsea fan, and my fondest memory of the club is the 2008 Champions League final which they lost to Manchester United. 

As a United fan, given our current form, I go back to that night a lot to erase some of the current pain. That being said, I have always seen the north London club as a formidable threat, and off late, they have become one of the best clubs in the world. 

It’s not just their men’s team; the way Chelsea have developed their men’s, women’s and youth setups is more than commendable and needs to be acknowledged, regardless of whether you are a Blues fan or not.

Chelsea are run exactly how a football club should be run, with everything like a cog in a well-oiled machine — a testament to the system set in place. One of the main reasons they have reached the status they hold today is obviously down to their excellent management led by Marina Granovskaia and the support staff and players, but there has been one individual who has built the club from the shadows and remained there for quite a while, until the spotlight fell on him, anyway. 

Yes, it’s none other than Roman Abramovich. When he bought the club in 2003, Chelsea, despite already being a historic club, weren’t even half of what they are today. Yes, the legacy and trophies were there, but investing heavily, making sure the best people were brought in for the jobs, and setting up a flawless system are some of the things Abramovich brought with him that transformed the club. 

During Abramovich’s time as the club’s owner, Chelsea’s men’s team have lifted five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, two UEFA Champions League titles, two UEFA Europa League titles, one FIFA Club World Cup and one UEFA Super Cup. The women’s team, on the other hand, have also enjoyed unparalleled success and won multiple trophies which include the FA Women’s Super League four times, the Women’s FA Cup three times, the FA Women’s League Cup two times and one Women’s FA Community Shield.

To put it straight, Chelsea’s rise to the top has directly been linked to Abramovich’s investment in the club. And it is Abramovich who is the reason why Chelsea are now set to face their darkest of days. 

The ongoing Ukraine-Russia war has seen numerous countries worldwide condemn Russia, sanctioning their companies and influential people. Abramovich is one of them, and has been sanctioned by the UK government with all his assets frozen. 

We all knew the sanctions were coming. Even Abramovich did, which is why he tried to sell the club before they could be enforced. And yet, when the sanctions were announced, everyone was taken aback.

So what does that mean, exactly? Well, for starters, Abramovich’s plan to sell the club is halted, although The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Russian oligarch has come to an understanding with the UK government. He is barred from making money from the club, with the latter granted a special licence by the UK government to continue on with their footballing duties. 

The sanctions have hit Chelsea hard, so hard that, neither can they sell tickets (the only people who can attend games are season ticket holders and the ones who bought their tickets before the sanctions were enforced), nor can they transfer or loan players. They also can’t offer new contracts to players, and their broadcast and prize money has been frozen as well. As the final nail in the coffin, Chelsea’s bank account has also been temporarily suspended by Barclays. To make matters worse, they are also seeing multiple sponsors back out. Three, a British telecoms firm and the club’s principal shirt sponsor, has already suspended its partnership with the club, and their kit supplier Nike is ‘reconsidering’ its deal as well. Sleeve sponsor Hyundai has also suspended its deal with the club. 

Amidst all the chaos, it is only natural that the situation has left the players worried about their future. With the sanctions imposed, no one knows what lies ahead. The men’s team have contracts of César Azpilicueta, Antonio Rüdiger and Andreas Christensen running out in the summer, while the same is true for Ann-Katrin Berger, Maren Mjelde, Jonna Andersson, Ji So-yun and Drew Spence of the club’s women’s team.

Where will the players go? What will the club do? The sanctions can seem ridiculous as well: £20,000 limit on travelling for away matches, which is a bit absurd given Chelsea’s teams travel for Champions League games all across Europe and the men’s team are still in the competition this season. The logistics and numbers just do not match. 

This brings us to the elephant in the room: Roman Abramovich has been sanctioned because of his links to the Kremlin, but should the club suffer for that? The thousands of people in London whose livelihoods depend on the club, are they linked to the Kremlin as well? 

The answer to the second question is an obvious no, but you can’t ignore what is happening in Ukraine as well. The sanctions are aimed at hurting Russia for invading Ukraine, but with numerous sanctions being rolled up daily, has the Russian onslaught slowed down? NO. But that is a different discussion and I don’t want to get into the politics of that in this article. Over the last 20 years, the UK government has spent more than £100 billion on Russian oil, gas and importing other products. I am not implying anything, but you can decide for yourself whether this is hypocrisy or not. 

Days after Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, Chelsea spokesperson Rola Brentlin stated:

I can confirm that Roman Abramovich was contacted by the Ukrainian side for support in achieving a peaceful resolution and that he has been trying to help ever since.

But has Abramovich actually spoken to the Kremlin or tried to find a middle ground? 

The Guardian’s Marina Hyde reports:

Unfathomably, Abramovich has been seen nowhere near the negotiating table, and it seems more likely that far from being engaged in “trying to help ever since”, the oligarch has spent most waking hours trying to shift his various UK assets before those nice pre-warners of the British government finally got around to freezing them on Thursday (10/03/2022).

What Abramovich’s role is or isn’t and whether it is the right thing to put these sanctions on the club is something that can be debated until kingdom come and I will not comment on that; your opinion on the matter is what should matter to you. What I do want to talk about is: is the Chelsea case a genuine one or one of double standards?

Double standards have always been a part of sports and will continue to do so. Case in point, just recently, the 2022 Winter Olympics hosted by Beijing was an event marred with controversy, as one of the participants were Chinese Taipei. Which country is that, you ask me? Well, it’s Taiwan (the name ‘Chinese Taipei’ was given first in 1981, and Taiwan have never formally declared independence, with China stating that they would retaliate with force should Taiwan do so). Although China’s stance on this matter is not surprising, it still makes one raise their eyebrow about the state of the sporting world today where a country cannot compete under their own name. The International Olympic Committee, though, thankfully, was not having any of it.

Back in the Premier League, everyone has just accepted the Saudi Arabia-led takeover of Newcastle United like nothing had ever happened. The horrific human rights violations, the country’s role in the Yemen war which has killed thousands, is just being ignored. Speaking about the massacre in Yemen, the UK, as well as the US, are responsible for more than a thousand civilian casualties in the country as reported by The Independent, but that also isn’t an issue because it wasn’t the Kremlin or linked to Putin.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not siding with Putin or the Kremlin. I’m only raising a genuine question as to where the sanctions were when other atrocities were being carried out over the years. The answer to that is simple: there is an underlying problem in sports which is selective outrage. 

While on the topic of selective outrage and with the Premier League in discussion, we simply cannot leave out Newcastle United’s recent acquisition by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia (it needs to be reiterated here that the Premier League has received ‘legally binding assurances’ that the Public Investment Fund is in no way directly associated to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia). Apart from their abhorrent human rights records, recently, the country executed 81 individuals on a single day, and when Newcastle manager Eddie Howe was asked to comment on the matter, he was unable to provide a proper answer. UK Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston has also spoken about ‘how important the relationship with Saudi Arabia is’. 

While we are discussing Middle Eastern countries, don’t forget about the men’s World Cup which will be held in Qatar later this year. Amnesty International has been crying out for ages regarding the shocking conditions the workers are being forced to work in. Numerous lives have been lost in Qatar due to this, and yet, the show goes on. In this case, FIFA has chosen to look the other way (speaking of FIFA, Abramovich played an important part in Russia winning the 2018 World Cup bid).

The so-called good guys standing up to Russia now have never shied away from taking blood money from all over the world.

Regardless of whether Roman Abramovich is a close aide of Putin or not (he claims he isn’t), or whether he actually tried to negotiate for peace between Russia and Ukraine, should Chelsea Football Club suffer? Because the club are the players, the staff and the millions of fans worldwide and not just an asset owned by Abramovich. Majority of the people connected to the club don’t have ties to the Kremlin, and certainly almost all of them are against the war and want peace and stand by Ukraine. 

Chelsea owe Abramovich more than a billion pounds, but the Russian hasn’t asked the club to repay it. Not selling match tickets will not hurt Abramovich as much as it will hurt the fans and those working at the club. Where is the line drawn then? Apparently, when it comes to the sporting world, there just isn’t a line. Just days ago, Formula One team Haas sacked their Russian driver Nikita Mazepin and dumped their Russian title sponsor Uralkali, which is owned by Mazepin’s father who is also a close aide of Putin. However, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, world motorsport’s governing body, had given Russians an option to continue participating under a neutral flag and Mazepin had agreed to it, yet he got the boot because of his nationality and now both Mazepin and his father have been sanctioned. Esports organiser BLAST Premier banned all Russian esports organisations and athletes as well. 

Does banning Russian athletes make sense? No, it is simply a case of selective outrage. Remember the Uyghur Genocide? The 2019 Xinjiang papers leak? Despite this, Chinese athletes compete worldwide and some of the biggest sports teams and organisers are sponsored by the Chinese. The Indian Premier League had Vivo as its title sponsor, and after the COVID aftermath and border tensions with China, the IPL dropped Vivo as its title sponsor for the 2020 season only to bring it back in 2021 (Vivo has since been replaced by TATA). 

This selective outrage gets even worse as we come to the big guns — the United States of America. The US and their allies have dropped more that 326,000 bombs and missiles on other countries, with a report by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies for Common Dreams stating that, as of 2021, the US have dropped 46 bombs per day on other countries since 2001. But the world of sports shall ignore it cause it’s Uncle Sam, one of the ‘good guys’. Another easier way to understand is this: remember the ones who are the allies and those who aren’t (the UK supplied the Saudi with more than £10bn worth of various mssiles, bombs and aircrafts).

Coming back to Chelsea, only time will tell what happens to the club and Abramovich. Even though Abramovich is sanctioned, the potential bidders have been trying to speed up the process to buy the club. British property tycoon Nick Candy has joined the queue, while a consortium led by Hansjörg Wyss, Todd Boehly and Jonathan Goldstein has also submitted an offer. Owner of the New York Jets, Woody Johnson, is also reported to be interested. All potential bidders have time until March 18 to submit their takeover proposals to US bank Raine Group, which is handling the process. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Chelsea’s men’s team’s head coach Thomas Tuchel and senior players such as Thiago Silva have publicly announced that they will not be leaving the club.

Regardless of whether the Ukraine-Russia wars ends tomorrow or a year later, whether the sanctions keep rolling out, whether Chelsea go into administration, two things are for certain:

  • you don’t get to decide who gets to be angry, and
  • a sports team is never defined by the owner and will always be much more than that.

Abramovich might have played a crucial role in the transformation of Chelsea Football Club, but there are thousands more involved here and they do not deserve these sanctions. Those at Chelsea might be feeling, forgive my pun, the blues at the moment, but the club are certain to keep their flag flying high and continue on the best they can as long as they can.

Abramovich’s money invested in Chelsea might or might not have been dirty, but the trophies, success and everything else the club have achieved in the last 19 years is something no sanction can take away. The world is watching, and things will settle down in time. This, however, is the Premier League, and the streets won’t forget.

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