Sportswashing derby: Chelsea-Newcastle bound by murky owners

LONDON (AP) — The chants grew louder as the Newcastle fans closed in on Stamford Bridge through the throngs of the subdued Chelsea support.

“Chelsea get bankrupt everywhere they go,” they gloated.

The chance to seize on the misfortune of a rival was an open goal the supporters from northeast England were not going to miss.

But beyond the taunting songs, there were few obvious signs around Chelsea’s stadium to signal the unprecedented situation the Premier League club now finds itself in — only permitted to operate under a special British government license after owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Freezing the assets of Abramovich restricts Chelsea’s ability to generate income. So the club shops remained closed as they have been since Thursday when the sanctions against Abramovich were announced. No matchday magazines were allowed to be sold. The only fans allowed into Sunday’s 1-0 victory for third-place Chelsea over Newcastle had to have bought tickets before Thursday.

The reigning European and world champions are sending out the message they are running out of cash — becoming “skint” in a British colloquialism — to pressure the government to ease restrictions before the fast-tracked sale can be completed to end Abramovich’s 19 years of trophy-filled ownership.

“Chelsea’s skint,” came another song from the Magpies fans, “and the Mags are rich.”

Newcastle certainly has the richest owners in football. But it is an ownership that denies Newcastle fans the ability to assume a moral high ground. And yet during a match where the chants were most memorable, they still bellowed: “Abramovich is a war offender”.

Abramovich has not commented since being targeted in a crackdown on the assets of Russian oligarchs in Britain since Moscow launched the invasion of Ukraine that the Premier League has condemned.

And yet, the same league officials in October approved the sale of Newcastle to the Saudi sovereign wealth fund led by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman despite protests by human rights activists and insisting the kingdom didn’t control the club.

“I don’t want to point the finger because comparing yourself or blaming the others,” Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel said, “doesn’t make the situation for us a different situation.

“We condemn war and the action from Russia towards Ukraine. There is no doubt that we are facing the consequences actually at the moment.”

On the eve of this game against Chelsea — dubbed a “sportswashing derby” — Bin Salman’s regime carried out the largest known mass execution in the autocratic kingdom’s modern history by killing 81 people convicted of crimes ranging from murder to membership in a militant group.

“In an era of global sportswashing and with the horror of what is currently unfolding in Ukraine,” said Amnesty International UK CEO Sacha Deshmukh, “the Premier League has a clear moral responsibility to change its ownership rules to put a stop to topflight English football being used as a PR vehicle for those complicit in serious human rights violations.”

The Newcastle fans were unmoved and still waving Saudi flags in the Shed End in west London.

“I’ll stick to football,” Newcastle manager Eddie Howe said when asked about the country bankrolling his club launching the mass executions.

It’s a stance that overlooks how clubs in world football can be used as political tools.

“I’ve made my position clear,” Howe responded curtly.

It’s an uneasy situation even some Newcastle fans admit being conflicted by, despite the more than $100 million of spending in the first transfer window under Saudi ownership helping the team to move clear of the relegation zone. While Newcastle shows solidarity toward the Ukrainian victims of Russia’s aggression, the Saudis are involved in a war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

For now, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has cordial relations with Saudi Arabia and the country’s ambassador to Riyadh celebrated the Newcastle purchase. But the moves against Abramovich’s British businesses serve as a cautionary warning for Newcastle fans celebrating their newfound investment and how geopolitical tensions can impact a Premier League team.

“Boris Johnson, he’s coming for you,” were the heckles from Chelsea to the visitors from Newcastle.

Outside, Newcastle fans listened in as Angie Conlon, a Chelsea fan who traveled down from the northeast city, reflected on how authorities have a wider responsibility to assess the source of owner funding in light of Abramovich’s downfall.

“This could easily happen because the Saudis are doing horrible things to people in Yemen,” said Conlon, who has been coming to Chelsea games since the 1970s. “It just goes to show if we’ve got a (new) owner — we’re bound to have billionaire owners, otherwise you can’t afford this club these days — anything can happen that could change that in a week. Really, we won’t get to the end of the season if we don’t get this club sold.”

Perhaps it was the realization of the severity of the situation now facing Chelsea that ensured there was no repeat on Sunday of the Abramovich chants that disrupted the previous weekend’s backing for Ukraine during a game at Burnley.

Still hanging at Stamford Bridge, though, was “The Roman Empire” banner on a Russian flag dedicated to the owner who has funded 21 trophies since 2003 for a club that had won only 11 in its previous 98 years.

“You’re never going to change any Chelsea fan’s opinions on him,” 64-year-old fan Kim Clark said. “Never for what he’s done for this club.”

Just as he has been for three decades, Clark was manning an unofficial stall close to the Chelsea stadium. There were a couple of books about Abramovich on sale and old matchday magazines.

Fans were unable to buy them for Sunday’s game on government orders. The only editions of a limited print run were provided to those who had pre-paid, club guests or media and they found the only reference to Abramovich was a statement announcing the sanctions and the government license the cub was operating under.

“We know there’s going to be sanctions, we understand that something has to be done,” Clark said. “It’s getting petty... but it’s all the knock-on effects that are happening now. It’s affecting the fans.”


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