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A House of Cards?

Published 11 months ago 18th March 2022 by Ronan Quirke

Not all of our readers will remember Peter Bonetti. He passed away in the early days of the COVID pandemic in 2020. He played almost 500 times for Chelsea over a 15 year period and, had his career not coincided with that of Gordon Banks, he would have had more recognition at international level.
His former club are holding a memorial service for him this Friday 18th March and it is a ticketed event. Tickets are free of charge but attendance at the event requires a ticket. Except the club have been prohibited from distributing tickets for this memorial to a former club hero, a player far removed from the wealth and success of the current Chelsea FC.

The club is currently restricted from benefiting from ticket sales in a raft of measures designed to hurt, financially, the owner of Chelsea FC, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
Despite the tickets being free, they are still classified as a transaction and so ticket distribution to a free event won’t now take place.

I am not a supporter of Chelsea FC. I am at best indifferent to the club. And I have become somewhat fascinated, as an adult, at the relationship that can be forged between the Irish football supporter and selected English football clubs.

As a child I was more than interested in the exploits of Liverpool FC. I would demand to be woken up after the Late Late Show on a Saturday night (yes it was on a Saturday night back then), to watch Match of the Day. Football fans in Tipperary only had two television channels back then. And if I woke on a Sunday morning and realised that no one had called me for a limited highlights football program, then I raised hell at the Sunday breakfast table, (no video recorders either back then).

And then I grew up and realised that the fortunes or otherwise of a football club in the north west of England shouldn’t really interfere with my sleep and that more enjoyment could be gleaned from watching live sport around the county.

I retain a limited interest in English football but recoil when I hear grown adults refer to their preferred English Club in the possessive case. “We are playing Villa on Sunday” or “you’ve no chance against us on Sunday”. Give me a break!

However, English football has fascinated me more in recent weeks than it has for decades and it is down to its duplicity. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 for about £150m, he also inherited the debt the club was already in.

Fast forward 19 years and Abramovich has been a lender of last resort for the club that he owns. He has ‘loaned’ the club £1.8 billion and as a result the club has enjoyed unprecedented success when you consider the relatively barren 100 years that preceded Abramovich.

In the Abramovich era, the club has won 21 major titles including 2 UEFA Champions League titles.
In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UK Government has belatedly attempted to clamp down on the flow of dubious Russian money into Britain in general and London in particular.
Abramovic made his fortune during the collapse of the old Soviet Union as the run of privatisations fuelled Russia’s rapid transformation from Communist state to free market economy.

He positioned himself close to the handles of power and despite his protestations to the contrary, is closely linked with Vladimir Putin. Right now, his assets are frozen and this includes his football club.
Under the Government restrictions, the club cannot benefit from match tickets or merchandising. And cash flow will soon be a problem for the club when the oligarch’s pockets are shut. The monthly wage bill at Chelsea is €33 million. They are estimated to have around a fortnight’s wages in their current account. Shirt sponsors, telecommunications company Three, and sleeve sponsor Hyundai together contribute about €65 million to the club and both are now desperately trying to separate themselves from the club. The future of the club is in peril.

But in whose interest will it be if Chelsea is destroyed? By all means remove Russian interest in the club. In so doing, ensure that Abramovich loses his shirt if that is what sanctions are intended to do. Chelsea had Irish supporters pre-Abramovich, mid-Abramovich and they will hopefully have a club to support post-Abramovich. The Chelsea supporters I know have been following the club’s fortunes for over 40 years and if the club were in the lower leagues of English football and far removed from the bright lights of the Champions’ League, they would continue to support them.

The club brings them joy. Abramovich has tried to distance himself from Putin and Russia but when he remained silent after his own daughter condemned the invasion of Ukraine, minds were made up in Whitehall and the Government moved against Abramovich and by extension, Chelsea.

The blow dealt to Abramovich is justified. The collateral damage to Chelsea is not. John Simpson, the noted BBC World Affairs Editor wrote recently of the club he supports: ‘the greatest effect has fallen on us, the people who turn up in rain or sun to support Chelsea.’ Football may not be your thing but the club, much like Manchester United and Liverpool and Celtic are cultural assets in Britain. Allowing one of them to wither and die is not the objective. And it is here that the British Government’s duplicity is all too apparent.

Newcastle United is a sleeping giant in English football. It is the only club in a large city and enjoys a large supporter base. It is not a successful club by any means, it almost won a title in the 1990’s but blinked when the prize was in their grasp. It was sold recently to a Saudi consortium headed up by Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and deputy Prime Minister.

Newcastle United are now owned by a fund that is governed by a state and that state is also, just like Russia, involved in a bloody invasion of a neighbouring state. The role played by Saudi Arabia in Yemen is well documented. A quarter of a million people have been killed in the war in Yemen.

It is rarely on the news, RTE have no reporters or cameramen over there. On Saturday last, the state of Saudi Arabia executed 81 people convicted of crimes, the largest known mass execution carried out in the kingdom in modern history. And yet the UK Government have not moved against either the owners of Newcastle United nor the club itself.

It took 14 days after the invasion of Ukraine for the British government to move against Abramovich. Seven years on from Saudi Arabia waging war in Yemen, and there is a warm welcome for the Saudi billionaires on the banks of the River Tyne.

I understand why the war in Europe attracts more coverage on western TV than a war in Syria or Yemen. Millions of refugees in Europe harks back to a past that we all hoped was consigned to history. But a child in Yemen is as special as a child in Ukraine. And a millionaire football owner who has close ties with a warring country is just as unpleasant if the war is in Europe or the Middle East.

No one is calling for sanctions against Saudi Arabia. Russian involvement in the poisoning of dissidents in Salisbury rightly provokes outrage. A journalist killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is now overlooked. Jamal Khashoggi was the journalist’s name by the way. So why is Russian money rightfully provoking disgust and Saudi money so welcome? I have no idea but I am sure that it has nothing to do with the £10 billion worth of Typhoon and Tornado aircraft that the British have supplied the Saudis.

Not to mention Paveway bombs, Brimstone and Storm Shadow missiles. That couldn’t be a factor here by any chance?
Football fans do not choose the owners of their clubs. Chelsea fans had a really good party over the past 19 years under Abramovich’s tenure. But now the party is over and everyone is angry about something they always knew. The money funding the Chelsea success story wasn’t clean. Manchester City have been transformed from a footnote in English football to a global juggernaut on the back of money from the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine rather issuing a statement that ‘taking sides would only lead to more conflict’ and its priority was to ‘encourage all parties to resort to diplomatic action’. Talk about hedging your bets?

And here is the point, sport is often dirty and seedy.
Global football is no different. I wrote in the last edition about FIFA and Qatar and the World Cup. This week’s events have dwarfed that story because English football, whose teams are supported in earnest by some Irish people, are directly immersed in global politics and not in a good way. Not in a humanitarian way and not in any way that benefits humans.

One hopes that this does not become a house of cards that leaves some clubs consigned to history. Clubs that are over 100 years old have to be built on more than just sand.

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