The chaos engulfing Chelsea after sanctions imposed on Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich has sparked a new debate over the money sources fueling Europe’s richest league. The Premier League club’s assets were frozen after Abramovich was targeted by the British government after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, forcing them to deal with a ban on ticket sales and merchandise. An accelerated sale of the European champions will soon draw the line on 19 years of nearly uninterrupted success under their 55-year-old owner, who has overseen five Premier League titles and two Champions League victories.
Chelsea’s first home game since the sanctions were imposed was against Newcastle, whose own ownership model is also in the spotlight following a controversial takeover in October by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Human rights group Amnesty expressed concern about the purchase, saying it was an attempt to “sport” the human rights situation of the Gulf Kingdom.
As a result of the increased focus on matters off the pitch, Newcastle boss Eddie Howe was forced to answer questions after the Chelsea game about dozens of executions in Saudi Arabia rather than incidents during the game.
Newcastle are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City, who have become the dominant force in the Premier League over the past decade thanks to massive investment.
But the UAE’s decision to abstain from voting on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s “aggression” against Ukraine and a recent meeting between city owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — have led to a renewed focus on City.
Opposition Labor party Chris Bryant said it would be “good to see the back of” Sheikh Mansour as owner of the city, while the government criticized his meeting with Assad, saying it undermined prospects for a lasting peace in Syria.
Sports business expert Simon Chadwick told AFP that despite the unease over who is financing Premier League clubs, it is difficult to foresee meaningful change in the short term, with billionaires from around the world queuing up to buy Chelsea.
“European football can rid itself of money from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, but what’s left? If they leave, who will replace them?” said Chadwick, global professor of sports at Emlyon Business School.
“If we take the example of Chelsea, one of the options to replace a departing Russian is a consortium of an American and Swiss billionaire, so for British football fans the situation will not change.”
– Turning point? †
Recognizing the need for a stir, the UK government will publish a fan-led review of the sport’s governance in November.
Recommendations include the creation of a new independent regulator for English football and testing new owners and directors to ensure that “only good managers” can run clubs.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said earlier this month that the league’s owners and drivers test was under review, with Sports Secretary Nigel Huddleston claiming it should be “more robust”.
Huddleston told a committee of lawmakers last week that he believes the English game is at a “turning point”.
“The fan-led assessment is critical,” he said, with the government’s full response in the coming weeks. “We recognize that there are flaws in the structure and governance of English football.”
Questions about ownership and sponsorship models are not unique to the English top flight.
Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain storm their way to the eighth French league title in 10 years, while the Spanish Football Federation has come under criticism for bringing the Super Cup to Saudi Arabia.
In Germany, Schalke cut ties with Russian state energy company Gazprom, but Bayern Munich stuck to a sponsorship deal with Qatar despite a fan riot that disrupted the club’s annual general meeting in November.
Football clubs and the Premier League have come under fire for apparently failing to ask probing questions about where their money comes from while chasing silverware in a hyper-competitive industry.
Chelsea becomes entangled in geopolitical currents well beyond football, but whether the sport makes sense for fundamental change remains to be seen.
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