OLIVER HOLT: Chelsea versus Newcastle is a game that turns the stomach
13th March 2022

OLIVER HOLT: Chelsea versus Newcastle is a game that turns the stomach and embarrasses our national sport… the Premier League has become a haven for the dirty money of despots, tyrants and gangsters’ molls – it is time we got our clubs back

  • Chelsea vs Newcastle on Sunday will be the Premier League’s game of shame 
  • Roman Abramovich’s link to Vladimir Putin has placed Chelsea in grave danger
  • The Premier League took far too long to punish him after Russia invaded Ukraine
  • They also allowed the Saudi Arabian state to take over Newcastle in October
  • England’s top flight did not see a red flag despite Saudi’s long war with Yemen
  • The sorry farrago shows English football needs to be independently regulated 

As Russia’s howitzers continue to bombard the cities of Ukraine and our television screens show us pictures of bodies frozen in the snow, the Premier League will invite us to turn, for light relief, to Chelsea’s match with Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge this weekend.  

Make sure you have eaten your Sunday lunch well before you switch it on. Otherwise, you may struggle to keep it down.

Football is supposed to be about escapism, especially in times like these. But this match will not provide any of that currency. Chelsea v Newcastle is the Premier League’s game of shame. It is a prospect that turns the stomach. 

Chelsea against Newcastle on Sunday afternoon will be the Premier League’s game of shame

As Russia continue to bombard Ukraine, England’s top flight will invite us to turn to it for relief

It is a meeting that embarrasses our national sport and the people who run it. They have allowed it to become a match distorted by horrors.

The Premier League allowed Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich — described by the Government as a ‘pro-Kremlin oligarch’ who has had ‘a close relationship for decades’ with Vladimir Putin — to hide in plain sight at the pinnacle of English football since 2003. They did nothing to restrict his role in our national sport even when his ally sent Russian tanks rolling into Ukraine last month.

The Premier League can claim one distinction at least. An unlikely first. When it came to finally confronting the ignominy of the amount of dubious Russian money swilling around the English establishment, they were even slower than the British Government. 

The Government finally imposed sanctions on Abramovich last week. The Premier League? Still silent, until, eventually, they disqualified him as a Chelsea director on Saturday.

They took too long to punish Roman Abramovich after ally Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine 

The Premier League also waved through the Saudi Arabian state takeover of Newcastle last October, knowing that the Saudis were involved in a long and destructive war with Yemen that is said to have caused 233,000 deaths. More than 10,000 children are estimated to have been killed or wounded as a direct result of the fighting.

That war has not garnered the same attention as the war in Ukraine, perhaps because it is backed by British weapons and because Boris Johnson is planning a trip to Riyadh this week to plead for more Saudi oil. 

But we did sit up and take notice when the Saudis murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 and cut up his body with a bone saw. The Premier League did not see a red flag there, either, apparently.

The Premier League also allowed the Saudi Arabian state to buy Newcastle back in October

Saudi’s long and destructive war in Yemen was clearly not a big enough red flag for them

All in all, then, what an uplifting meeting is in store for us at the Bridge. Perhaps Amanda Staveley, one of Newcastle’s minority owners, will repeat the expressions of sympathy she voiced for Abramovich 10 days ago when she said she didn’t think it was ‘particularly fair’ he had to sell Chelsea. We did not learn how ‘fair’ she thought it that Abramovich’s ally, President Putin, was bombing Ukraine back to the Middle Ages.

Nor did we learn how ‘fair’ she thought it that Khashoggi was cut up with a bone saw. Nor did we learn how ‘fair’ she thought it that homosexuality remains illegal in Saudi Arabia. Maybe all those questions are for another time when the sadness she said she felt about the fate of the Chelsea owner has begun to dissipate a little.

Until then, we have to sit back and endure spectacles like the one that will unfold in west London on Sunday, a proxy battle between an Abramovich in exile and Saudi Arabia. One is a sportswasher whose investment has finally failed him, the other a sportswasher right at the beginning of its journey to wipe away the traces of its actions through English football.

Perhaps Amanda Staveley (R) will repeat the expressions of sympathy she voiced for Abramovich 10 days ago on Sunday

The game at Stamford Bridge will be a battle between two sportswashers at different stages

Newcastle, in particular, will not relish Sunday’s collision and the harsh spotlight it will cast on them. The damage is done to Chelsea already but the war in Ukraine seems to have finally opened the eyes of those who did not previously want to see what the Premier League has become. Our league is a haven for the dirty money of despots, tyrants and gangsters’ molls.

I was at Burnley last week when the Chelsea fans desecrated the minute’s applause for Ukraine by singing Abramovich’s name over and over again. It was, perhaps, the most dispiriting example so far of the success that sportswashing can achieve.

Tribalism supersedes everything, even compassion for humans being slaughtered in an unjust war. ‘I have never known so much hatred as I have received in recent days from Chelsea fans over the sanctioning of Putin’s long-term mate, Roman Abramovich,’ said Labour MP Chris Bryant last week. ‘Sorry, but Abramovich washed his dirty money clean through sport.’

The Premier League is a place where we have allowed autocratic regimes and their beneficiaries to come to play. It is a place where the fans sing their names and shower their critics with abuse. It is a place where we have looked the other way for too long.

The fall of Abramovich must change all that. The ruin that Chelsea face must change all that. It is time for the Premier League to accept what it has become and accept it needs to be corrected. It is time for a reset. This is an opportunity to stop nation-states buying our clubs and turning them into hostages to fortune. It is time to put up the barriers when kleptocrats wave their cash in our faces.

The Premier League is a haven for the dirty money of despots, tyrants and gangsters’ molls

Manchester City are majority-owned by the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, who refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The beauty of the club’s football and the genius of their coach, Pep Guardiola, has insulated them from greater scrutiny up to this point.

Saudi Arabia should never have been allowed to buy Newcastle and now that Abramovich has been sanctioned for his activities outside the game, surely it is time for English football to take the same attitude with the new masters of St James’s Park.

The Premier League has proved beyond doubt that it is not up to the job of fixing the problem. The whole sorry farrago provides yet more evidence — not that any were needed — that it is time that English football was governed by an independent regulator.

There is still some scepticism about a regulator. Mainly from those who would have limits imposed on their greed by one. But when Chelsea are reduced to pleading for their football life, surely those still resisting the idea of a regulator have to ask themselves one question: how much worse than this can it be?

The fall of Abramovich must change all that and allow us to get our English clubs back

Because however loyal Chelsea fans remain to Abramovich, however much success his money brought them, it is clear now that he has also placed one of England’s most famous clubs in grave danger. 

There is talk of them not being able to complete the season. No one knows where it will end or how badly. That is down to Abramovich.

Chelsea should never have been put in that position. Their fans should never have been put in that position. And even though Newcastle’s fans don’t know it yet, even though they are still reciting the delusional mantra that they have regained control of their club after the exit of the unlamented Mike Ashley, the same applies to them. If the appetite to cleanse our Augean Stables grows, the Saudis should be the next to be rinsed away.

It is always worth remembering, of course, that Chelsea are low on the growing list of Putin’s victims but they were sucked into his orbit by Abramovich and now they are paying the price. 

If they are lucky, they will soon be sold so that they can escape the ruin that is staring them in the face. Whether that happens or not, we know what is to be done: it is time we got our clubs back.

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