This week has shown just how effective sportswashing can be
Sportswashing: the practice of an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state using sport to improve their reputation
By Daniel Petersen
Credit: Reuters/Toby Melville
Imagine, if you will, a world in which Roman Abramovich hadn’t bought Chelsea.
Aside from the fundamental change to the fabric of football, history continues as it has until the 24th of February 2022, when Russia invades Ukraine. The world recoils in horror, and then springs into action. A barrage of sanctions is unleashed upon the Russian economy and Abramovich, as a perceived ally of the Kremlin, is in danger of being sanctioned himself.
Would he have had a stand full of English football fans chanting his name during a minute’s applause in support of the Ukrainian people?
The answer, clearly, is no.
19 years and £1.5 billion after he parked his tanks on the Premier League’s lawn, Abramovich has a vast following, who will defend him no matter what he does. Scroll through the comments of any news article or social media post about Chelsea's predicament, and you will find them there. This is not to say that all Chelsea fans think or act the same way, but these public demonstrations should set alarm bells ringing.
This is the power of sportswashing.
To be clear, Chelsea are not the worst example of sportswashing in football - they are not even the worst example in England - but they are an example of a sportswashing project that is coming to an end, and in doing so, are showing just how much sports can distort people’s judgements of world events.
Thomas Tuchel and Emma Hayes deserve credit for the dignity with which they, as the most prominent representatives of Chelsea and by extension Abramovich, have handled themselves throughout this period, and sympathy for the fact that they have been left to front up for a matter way above their pay grade.
It is equally legitimate to criticize Tuchel for involving himself with not just Chelsea, but also Paris Saint-Germain, his previous employers, who like Newcastle and Manchester City are a sportswashing vehicle for a state with a questionable human rights record. The same is true of Hayes, as it is of Eddie Howe, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino. These are not stupid people, nor are they politically ignorant. Guardiola is a passionate campaigner for Catalan independence, and has got in trouble with football’s authorities for wearing political symbols in the past. When asked about the 81 executions in Saudi Arabia, Howe said that he would ‘stick to football.’ While he is well within his rights to say that, we are rapidly approaching the point where that kind of non-answer is no longer acceptable. A manager known for his meticulous research cannot claim ignorance forever, and when you are employed by a nation's sovereign wealth fund, it becomes legitimate to ask you about the actions of that nation, and your response to those actions. These stories, these questions are not new, nor are they going to go away quickly.
Sportswashing is nothing new either; it’s been an observable phenomenon since Roman times. The ability of sporting glory to buff a scuffed reputation is undeniable, and extremely attractive to those with the resources to make full use of it. What has changed is how brazen it has become, and in response, we must ask more brazen questions.
Why is Khaldoon Al Mubarak, a founding member of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council, one of the most famous names in Manchester? Why is he held up as an example of what a benevolent club chairman should be?
Why have Newcastle fans gone to St. James’ Park wearing tea-towels on their heads? Why are they lauding a Saudi regime that, just last week, executed 81 people in one day?
Why is Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics, just 14 years after hosting the Summer Olympics?
Why are Qatar hosting the World Cup? Why did Russia?
These are questions that fans, managers, directors and executives must ask themselves. It isn’t good enough anymore to say that sport and politics don’t mix: they always have and they always will. To suggest otherwise is a dangerous lie.