As a football fan weaned on a diet of Nike Total 90s and FIFA Street, Roman Abramovich has been a lurking, tenebrious figure for as long as I can remember. Despite his ubiquity in the Barclays, a character any fan will know and recognise, I cannot confidently state that I have ever heard his voice. His only appearances in our collective consciousness serve as a heavy-handed, blunt metaphor; grinning in the recesses of Stamford Bridge, cast in shadows, often applauding the behemoth he had constructed.

With the developing, abhorrent invasion of Ukraine, Abramovich has taken swift action. Firstly, he relinquished ‘stewardship’ of Chelsea, a move akin to Mr Burns relinquishing the power plant to Canary M. Burns. Before analysis could settle on this blatantly aesthetic move, he made a further announcement – that he was to sell Chelsea FC. Whilst official explanations have not linked the sale to the invasion of Ukraine and potential fear of repercussions on individuals with ties to Putin (which Abramovich denies), the timing and insistence that ‘net profit’ will be donated to supporting those affected by the invasion lead one’s thoughts down a certain path.

Canary M. Burns, owner of Springfield Power Plant. As seen, C. Montgomery Burns is definitely not the owner.

With the rapidly developing situation, the tribalism of football rapidly unearths itself, exploding into discussion in a manner akin to oil being found by Russian oil producer Sibneft. Chelsea fans sung Abramovich’s name in their tie with Luton before they had known he was selling the club. Online discussions, famous bastions of civil informed debate, have coarsened overnight; Blues arguing that Abramovich is victim of a media witch hunt, and his achievements in transforming the club (which is *nod nod, wink wink* for “chucked money at it”) and donations to the NHS during the pandemic have been overlooked in a frenzy of anti-Russian sentiment. Others have gone as far as to argue that this is a plot, a conspiracy, by rivals sensing an opportunity to deprive Chelsea of their most valuable asset: Russian wealth.

This continues a trend. Innumerable articles have been written on sports washing, but the last twelve months have really tested this author’s patience when it comes to the unfettered capital flowing into the game. The desperation for results has superseded any moral and social role that football was once built upon.

Let us be clear: Abramovich’s wealth, used to fund Chelsea’s two Champions League titles, was accumulated in the loans-for-share scheme that saw privatisation of state-owned Russian industries in the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Abramovich acquired shares in Sibneft, an oil production company, for a fraction of its real-world value. Abramovich himself has attested to bribing government officials to protect his assets.

Credit: The New York Times

Abramovich’s relationship with Putin is well-documented. He interviewed candidates for Putin’s first administration in 1999 and recommended that Dmitry Medvedev succeed Putin as President in 2007.

Alas, in a sport driven by results at all costs, a sport whose values have been desecrated at the altar of capital, none of this is relevant to a substantial portion of Chelsea fans. Sport, often acting as a mirror of the society which celebrates it, is willing to accept the flow of capital providing results are delivered, and winners are crowned. Cognitive dissonance dominates as the fond, cherished, and special memories of titles shuts down moral questions around the purpose and emptiness of it all.

The weariness which pervades this article can be attributed to two causes. One, the rare and fleeting moment in which football united against those who wished to form the European Super League; two, the disturbingly similar scenes we witnessed following the Public Investment Fund’s takeover of Newcastle United.

Whilst many celebrated the defeat of the ‘Super League’ proposals, with fans from every club expressing anger and dismay and many supporters actively engaging in protest, I felt concerned that this would be seen as ‘the victory’, the time that fans demonstrated their collective power, and we would trudge back to the game which had developed in a way that a Super League became a course of action. The Super League proposals were not spontaneous, born of the void, but an almost logical continuation in how football had developed. JPMorgan Chase supported the project to the tune of $5 billion. This was not a hair-brained scheme to grab power by a lunatic fringe, but a considered, planned attempt to move football’s relation with capital to its natural conclusion.

Players rallied; fans mobilised. Victory! The evil Perez was vanquished. We saved the city, Patrick!

Of course, the city had not been saved. The processes which led us to the Super League precipice had been in motion for twenty years. Fans had begun to accept – even welcome – investment in their club at any cost. Newcastle fans became expert geopoliticians and military analysts to shift blame from the links between their new owners and the Saudi royal family. They dressed in thawbs at home games, beside themselves at the prospect of signing Chris Wood. They were back. The Toon Army were going to win games of football! Why should anything else matter?

Man City fans, intoxicated on a decade of predictably monotonous success, take similar standpoints. The victory over the pernicious Super League Overlords had convinced the sport that the fans would not tolerate the debasement of their game by executives. Immediately, the sport fell back into the celebration of wins via capital injection, tuning into the Champions League (with its big shiny Gazprom sponsorship), and defending owners who were not good people. The sight of decent people who love a sport charging into battle to defend billionaires with serious accusations levelled against them is dispiriting.

Credit: The Standard

However, it is also understandable. Football touches people and shapes lives in irrational ways. My fondest, most vivid memories are at football games. We often inherit a club from our parents and grandparents, decades of support stretching through the events of people’s lives, a small, twisting thread of moments which make life worth it. It is not on these fans to renounce their football club, to sever ties with a century of history because an event out of their control has occurred at boardroom level.

The celebration and defending of these people in the name of ‘wins’ brings football further and further away from its origins and purpose. I am not a fan who is insistent the sport was better when goalkeepers did not wear gloves and strikers would have a clichéd pint with the fans (it was not). I am a fan who recognises that the trajectory of football continues to move inevitably towards a project unrecognisable to what we first adored. I do not want to blame fans, who want to see their team win games. I do feel that there is an opportunity, for a country who has long vilified collective action, to form a united approach to fend off the slow, imperceptible erosion of football in the name of dirty money.