Showing Russia the Red Card
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, football institutions of all kinds are preparing for profound change.
By Daniel Petersen
Credit: @redcardrussia on Twitter
Disclaimer: this article was written before Roman Abramovich was sanctioned by the UK Government. Chelsea have been issued with a ‘special license’ to fulfil their fixtures and continue paying staff, but the sale of the club has been halted.
UEFA have acted quickly to move the Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris, while all Russian clubs have been banned from European and international competition. In this, UEFA have precedent on their side: in 1992, Yugoslavia were disqualified from the European Championships following the outbreak of civil war. Denmark took their place, and went on to win the tournament. UEFA are also in talks to extricate themselves from a £30 million-a-year sponsorship contract with Gazprom, a Russian-state-backed oil company. Bundesliga 2. club Schalke have acted to remove Gazprom from their shirts, at considerable cost to themselves.
FIFA, by contrast, have noticeably dragged their feet on the issue, first issuing a laughably weak statement calling for ‘constructive dialogue’ but have now done something. For now, Russia’s national team has been ordered to play without a flag or national anthem, in line with actions taken by the International Olympic Committee and the FIA, motorsport’s governing body. Poland, the Czech Republic and Sweden are refusing to fulfill the upcoming World Cup qualifying playoffs which would potentially pit them against Russia, which places FIFA in a difficult position as giving Russia a bye to the World Cup would, to put it mildly, go down poorly.
FIFA’s lethargy is hardly a shock, however, given that President Gianni Infantino is close to Vladimir Putin. Infantino received two medals from the Kremlin in 2018 and 2019, on the back of the 2018 World Cup.
In the Premier League, chairman Richard Masters has announced that broadcast deals with Russian channels are ‘under review,’ with this season’s broadcast deal with Rambler now having been suspended. Manchester United have also ceased their sponsorship with Aeroflot, a state-backed airline which the club were contracted to use whenever possible.
Chelsea, for obvious reasons, have come to the forefront of this issue; the club is 100% owned by Roman Abramovich, who is accused of having close ties to the Kremlin, and has faced calls from UK MPs to be sanctioned. This would potentially freeze Chelsea’s assets, leaving them unable to pay wages or fulfil fixtures.
Abramovich released a statement on the 26th of February, passing the ‘stewardship and care’ of the club to the ‘trustees of Chelsea’s charitable Foundation.’ This, it should be emphasized, has no legal effect: Abramovich is still the sole owner, while Marina Granovskaia still runs the club on his behalf. Furthermore, the trustees, who include Chelsea Women’s Manager Emma Hayes and chairman Bruce Buck, have not accepted the responsibility for fear of legal repercussions. The Foundation is now in trouble with the UK’s Charities Commission, as Abramovich’s statement may also constitute a conflict of interest. Abramovich has now announced his intention to sell Chelsea, bringing to an end an illustrious reign, during which the club has won every available honour.
Worryingly for Chelsea, the club is propped up to a large extent by Abramovich, who has given the club more than £1 billion worth of loans to support the level of spending on transfers, wages, and severance packages that Chelsea have maintained over the last two decades. Stamford Bridge is also a major problem: the stadium is smaller than those of other Big Six clubs and the expense required to expand it is thought to be extremely prohibitive. Chelsea do not even own the freehold to the Bridge, which is held by Chelsea Pitch Owners, who are committed to never moving out. As a result, Chelsea are at a disadvantage when it comes to matchday revenue, and with Abramovich holding out for more than £3 billion, for now at least, are not as attractive to buyers as one might suppose.
Abramovich has said that he will write off the club’s considerable debts to him, and has established a charity, ostensibly for victims of the war in Ukraine, into which the ‘proceeds’ of the sale are supposed to go. Quite what this means in practice remains to be seen, and it is unclear whether he would be able to access the money if a takeover were to occur.
As shocking as Abramovich’s departure will inevitably be to Chelsea, if he is able to sell up before the UK government gets in gear and sanctions him, they should be fine. They sit third in the league, are likely to qualify for the Champions League, and have a deep squad full of saleable assets and an overflowing academy that will also provide revenue by fire-selling academy players - a measure that was always going to be necessary in the wake of FIFA’s reforms of the loan market. Provided the new owners come in with a decent plan, Chelsea have a reasonable foundation for a future without their Russian sugar daddy.