Chelsea Football Club has suddenly found itself in a state of deep financial and moral despair. This has happened because the club is owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian billionaire whom British authorities say is “associated with a person who is or has been involved in destabilizing Ukraine and undermining and threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence of Ukraine, namely Vladimir Putin, with whom Abramovich has had a close relationship for decades.” Abramovich was one of several individuals sanctioned by the British government for their close ties to Putin. For Chelsea, it means the club cannot buy, sell, or loan players, or sell additional tickets. There is fear within the club about the threat to their social and financial status, there is some concern and some glee from rival supporters, and there is endless commentary on the situation in general, including the article that you are reading now. But the most striking thing about the Chelsea affair is the vast silence from the three most significant participants at the heart of it.
The first silence belongs to Abramovich himself, a man who has given so few interviews since he took control of the West London club 19 years ago that he still retains considerable mystique. He is, by all accounts, a self-effacing character, who prefers to communicate through his deeds rather than his speech. As he told Matthew Garrahan of the Financial Times in 2003, “I’m sure people will focus on me for three or four days but it will pass. They’ll forget who I am, and I like that.” And if it is deeds on the football field that he wishes to be judged by, then few can argue about that contribution. It is understating things to call his time in charge of Chelsea a golden age: It has been a platinum era. In that time, Stamford Bridge has seen the arrival of, among other things, five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, two Europa Leagues, and two UEFA Champions Leagues. It has seen the emergence of some of the world’s finest players, managers, and executives. It has provided many of us with memories of some of the finest football we may ever see. Yet a football club is more than the contents of its trophy cabinet; it is more than the numbers on a balance sheet. On the question of the morality of his conduct beyond the club, matters that have now brought Chelsea into disrepute, Abramovich has remained scrupulously silent.
Instead, Abramovich has let the fans of his club speak for him. Since his investment has brought them so much glory, many of them feel it fitting to sing his name at matches and to defend him to all comers—which, of course, is their right. In the meantime, Abramovich has avoided important questions about his relationship with the man whose forces are currently trying to bomb Ukraine into submission. As ever, he is carefully using the clamor around his club to slip beneath the radar, and the few statements that he has made only invite further questions. For example, on March 2, he was praised for his generosity in setting up a charitable foundation for the net proceeds of the sale of Chelsea, a foundation that “will be for the benefit of all victims of the war in Ukraine.” The following week, the British government announced its sanctions, releasing a statement saying that a company controlled by Abramovich may have supplied steel to the Russian military to be used in the production of tanks, thereby supplying Putin with some of the arms that are presently doing immense damage. Beyond that, there have long been allegations about the manner in which Abramovich acquired his wealth and the political influence that he wielded with it. But what does Abramovich think of all this? We don’t know, because he won’t tell us, and maybe he never will.
The second striking silence in this affair is that of Abramovich’s associates and acquaintances within football. When we have been looking at public figures who might leap to his defense, we have mostly been left with an echo. John Terry, the former Chelsea captain, posted a photo in support of Abramovich on social media. Yet the solidarity elsewhere seems thin on the ground. This is surprising given the huge number of people he has enriched: Once again, the most spirited voices in his defense are to be found from Chelsea fans on drive-time radio shows. Yet while it is easy for many people to ridicule those who back Abramovich regardless of what he did to enable Putin’s rise, it also misses the point. Where are the executives who were at his side for years? Where are the sponsors who stood by him for so long? The questions about the origins of his wealth are not new, yet the emergence of troubling new allegations means that the clink of the champagne glasses that toasted his ascent has suddenly stopped.
The third and final silence belongs to the Premier League. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has spent more time answering sustained and detailed questioning than Richard Masters, the Premier League’s current chief executive. Yet the issue does not stop with Masters, who was not in charge when the Premier League approved the sale of Chelsea to Abramovich, and who has offered only platitudes in relation to the choices made by his predecessors. The issue begins with everyone at the Premier League who is responsible for the structure that has allowed ownership like this to prevail—most recently, in the form of Newcastle United, Chelsea’s opponents this weekend, in whom Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund has bought a controlling stake. Today, as the rest of us debate the merits of Abramovich’s tenure, their collective silence is overwhelming. If football were a sport that demanded accountability, then it would be absolutely routine for Premier League executives to put themselves before the media at times like these.
But that is far from the sport that we have. Instead, we have a sport that allowed Thaksin Shinawatra, a man who is said to have ordered thousands of extrajudicial killings, to purchase one of its most esteemed clubs in 2007. That is where we are, and the silence from these three areas shows us two key things. First, it shows contempt for the countless fans who have elevated football to its place of global prominence: If big questions are being asked, then substantial answers must be given. Secondly, it shows complacency that the state of affairs will never change, that their low profile will protect them from scrutiny. But as we saw with supporters’ wholesale rejection of the European Super League, there are limits to what fans will tolerate, and there are exciting things that fans can achieve when they move with unity. Perhaps this year, one when the malign role of politics in world football finally became unavoidable, is a moment when progressive change for our beautiful game can begin. In the meantime, Chelsea must contemplate a possible new ownership bid, which if successful threatens to offer fresh controversy for years to come.