Premier League: Chelsea sanctions invite soul-searching on football funding
The chaos engulfing Chelsea following sanctions imposed on Russian billionaire owner Roman Abramovich has sparked a new debate about the sources of money that fuel Europe’s wealthiest league. The Premier League club had their assets frozen after Abramovich was targeted by the British government following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, leaving them to face a ban on the sale of tickets and merchandise . An accelerated sale of the European champions will soon end 19 years of almost uninterrupted success under their 55-year-old owner, who has overseen five Premier League titles and two Champions League triumphs.
Chelsea’s first home game since the imposition of sanctions was against Newcastle, whose own ownership model is also in the spotlight after a controversial takeover in October by a consortium led by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.
Rights group Amnesty raised concerns about the purchase, saying it was an attempt to “sport” the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.
Reflecting the heightened focus on off-field issues, Newcastle boss Eddie Howe was forced to answer questions after the Chelsea match about dozens of executions in Saudi Arabia instead of incidents during the game.
Newcastle hope to follow in the footsteps of Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City, which has become the dominant force in the Premier League over the past decade thanks to huge investment.
Yet the UAE’s decision to abstain from voting on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russian “aggression” against Ukraine and a recent meeting between the city’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – have led to renewed interest in City.
Opposition Labor MP Chris Bryant said it would be ‘good to see’ Sheikh Mansour’s back as city owner, while the government slammed his meeting with Assad, saying it undermined the prospects for a lasting peace in Syria.
Sports business expert Simon Chadwick told AFP that despite unease over who is funding Premier League clubs, it is difficult to predict any significant change in the short term, with billionaires around the world lining up to buy Chelsea.
“European football can wean itself off of money from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia, but what is left? If they leave, who will replace them?” said Chadwick, global sports professor at Emlyon Business School.
“If we take the example of Chelsea, one of the options to replace an outgoing Russian is a consortium of an American and Swiss billionaire, so for British football fans the situation is not going to change.”
– Turning? –
The UK government recognizes the need for an overhaul, publishing a fan-led review into the governance of the sport in November.
Recommendations include the creation of a new independent regulator for English football and new tests of owners and managers to ensure “only good keepers” can run clubs.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters said earlier this month that the test of league owners and directors was being reviewed, with sports minister Nigel Huddleston saying it needed to be more ” robust”.
Huddleston told a committee of lawmakers last week he believed England’s game was at a “turning point”.
“The fan-led review is critically important,” he said, with the government’s full response expected in the coming weeks. “We recognize that there are failures in the structure and governance of English football.”
Questions about ownership and sponsorship models are not unique to the English elite.
Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain are racing towards an eighth French league title in 10 years, while the Spanish football federation have drawn criticism for taking their Super Cup to Saudi Arabia.
In Germany, Schalke severed ties with Russian energy giant Gazprom, but Bayern Munich maintained a sponsorship deal with Qatar despite a fan uprising that disrupted the club’s annual general meeting in November.
Football clubs and the Premier League are being criticized for seemingly neglecting to ask probing questions about where their money comes from as they chase silverware in a hyper-competitive industry.
Chelsea find themselves caught up in geopolitical undercurrents that extend far beyond football, but it remains to be seen whether the sport has the appetite for fundamental change.
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