Forest Gump winning the Best Picture Oscar in 1995 over Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption seemed scandalous at the time, and it becomes more perplexing as time passes. Despite being nauseatingly sentimental, it has moments, and lines that have attained fame, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” for instance.
Catchy, but not analogous with reality. Life constitutes a series of decisions. This only becomes destructive when the consequences create a choice between undesirable outcomes, yet you go through with it anyway. Say, selling a football club to a foreign Oligarch when the football clubs at that time were almost entirely owned by British millionaires.
Having caused a paradigm shift, and flooring the accelerator on inflation in the game, there’s little doubt the Premier League feels compelled to court wealth to maintain the façade of competitiveness they harmed irrevocably by introducing Abramovich. The only conclusion to be gleaned here is they aren’t concerned whether there is true competition, let alone that it’s fair, but profits.
This we already know. The circumstances surrounding the impending sale of Chelsea FC in the here and now should bring the question of financial regulation in football back into focus. Can English (European, even) football be saved from its obsession and servitude to wealthy ownership groups and individuals, or is Roman Abramovich’s disqualification a show trial and an exceptional event due to a confluence of rare circumstances.
The sale of Chelsea FC to Roman Abramovich nineteen years ago is the original sin, so I could do without the moral hysteria that’s motivated the UK government to act now. How Abramovich’s introduction was obsequiously lapped up in 2003 still grates, as it helped present football clubs to the claws of sovereign wealth funds as a possible means of sportswashing, leveraged buy-outs chancers (maybe they’ll move on to NFT’s instead, or is that fad over already?) and Oligarchs who have accumulated their wealth through ill-gotten gains, looking to curry favour socially and politically through excessive generosity to a football club.
Wars tend to cut through delusions and hypocrisies we might be willing to stomach in less fraught circumstances. Or so you’d like to believe. Perhaps the government of Brexit could let in more than the three hundred Ukrainian asylum seekers they have to date. That’s a more humane and necessary gesture than fucking Abramovich off and protecting Chelsea as a “cultural asset”, but, similar to Putin’s facelift, a vote winner the former is not. Better three hundred than nothing I suppose, but the meagre number also arouses suspicions that they’re prepared to do the bare minimum to disentangle London, specifically the city of London, of Russian influence and money. A small victory is still a win – here we have a delicious irony that the public profile Abramovich cultivated in lavishing £1.5 billion (in “personal” losses) on Chelsea FC has likely expedited his exile, that and his links to Putin made him an easy win in the court of public opinion for the increasingly lame duck Tory government. But an epiphany on sportswashing or sporting integrity, it is not.
Despite a favourable climate, the UK government will squander a golden opportunity to set a precedent, and right the wrongs of letting football operate unregulated. Because Chelsea will likely be sold for the most money ever for a sports team, £3 billion is the rumoured price, it vanquishes any chance of regulations being imposed on football and will no doubt vindicate the Premier League that they’ve ultimately chosen correctly by showing themselves the money.
Fans have enabled all of this to a degree. A large number of Manchester City fans are either oblivious to, or completely unconcerned by their owner meeting with your favourite Cabbage Patch Kid faced despot recently because their team wins shit every season. Is it fair to judge the suitability of a country to own a Premier League football club by the company they keep? It did for Abramovich, but only when the bombs and bullets started raining down, and Abramovich was a citizen of the country firing them. Perhaps that’s the new low-bar disqualification for owning a Premier League football club.
There are other hypocrisies at play in hoping that ministers will force the Saudis out of Newcastle United and Abu Dhabi out of Manchester City. It’s also extremely unlikely when Boris was busy toadying up to the Saudis this month, begging for oil (unsuccessfully), despite them murdering journalists, butchering eighty-one people in a day recently in a lovely mass execution, all while the UK government sells them weapons to bomb the fuck out of Yemen. Supporters of rival clubs, who’ll see Manchester City’s and Chelsea’s achievements (and Newcastle’s, should they reach that echelon) as bought or tainted, are primarily motivated not by ethical consistency but to see their rival’s scummy owners binned and sold to owners who’ll spend less money on players. Still, relative prudence, in Chelsea’s case, may, at the very least, encourage their fans to stop chanting “we’ve got more money than yow”.
Given the myopia and double standards of successive UK governments, it’s only fair that the Premier League can justify the sale of Newcastle United to a Saudi wealth fund on it technically not being owned by the crown prince of the Saudi state, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is viewed differently to one middle eastern country subjugating another. The Russian invasion is happening in Europe and mainly affecting ethnically white people. Throw in the geographical proximity, which is a bit too close for comfort, that most Muslim countries are portrayed in the West as backwaters blighted with archaic laws and religious fundamentalism, and the latter conflict matters just enough to oust an individual from owning a football club.
Whoever Chelsea FC is sold to – an “honest” cabal of American billionaires that’ll run the club sustainably, most likely – will be waived through, because, ultimately, the removal of Abramovich is gesture politics at its most insidious. Nothing has truly changed, the trite cliché of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing applies as everything is still for sale in the UK to the highest bidder (just provided you’re not Russian). While the Premier League takes the blame for this attitude becoming embedded in the football sphere, successive governments over the past three decades were the ones to set that tone.
Stupid is as stupid does, to quote that movie, again.