Sportswashing: Why we must not allow sport to be taken to cleaners - Stuart Rayner

Anyone who doubts “sportswashing” exists, need only have listened to the Chelsea fans chanting Roman Abramovich’s name during a minute’s appreciation for Ukraine before the game against Burnley.

The Russian oligarch has been able to buy popularity, cleansing his reputation in the eyes of some, with the success and the superstars he has brought to Stamford Bridge.

It is not even remotely new. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels had Leni Riefenstahl make a propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics, Muhammad Ali fought for world titles in some pretty dubiously-governed countries and South Africa’s exclusion from global sport in the 1970s and 80s was about not giving a veneer of legitimacy to apartheid. Even the Spanish national team’s style of football under General Franco, “La Furia Roja” was designed to showcase fascist muscularity.

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The only difference is that in the 21st Century, the Premier League has become a global competition, so that many more people are that much keener to get their claws into it either to showcase themselves or gloss over other things they are up to.

Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich (Picture: PA)Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich (Picture: PA)
Chelsea's owner Roman Abramovich (Picture: PA)

The Premier League is drawing up plans to lock this particular stable door by including human rights conditions into the fit and proper persons tests which regarded people much dodgier than Abramovich (exhibit A, Thaksin Shinawatra, who bought Manchester City whilst awaiting trial in absentia for the abuse of power he would be found guilty of as Thailand prime minister) but whatever rules are put in place, there will always be loopholes easier to find when you have oodles of cash and the lawyers they can hire.

Besides, there are grey areas aplenty.

The Premier League was hardly likely to be too choosy about taking Abramovich’s money when it operated in a country where the governments (of all colours) had such unenquiring minds about the roubles sloshing into the capital city where it was based, “Londongrad”, or when Europe’s governing body did one of its biggest sponsorship deals with Gazprom and the head of its supposedly cleaned-up global equivalent, FIFA, Gianni Infantino, has made a habit of cosying up to Vladimir Putin.

Putin has successfully attracted a football World Cup, a Champions League final, a Winter Olympics and added his country to Formula 1’s grand prix circuit amongst other blue riband events.

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The next World Cup, lest we forget, will be in Qatar, a country which has been a magnet for sporting bodies led by their wallets, not any sort of moral compass.

If Putin wanted those events so badly, they must have political value.

The Chelsea fans prepared to sing their support for Abramovich even as the president he has had close links with led an abhorrent invasion of Ukraine showed he was right.

When even Thomas Tuchel, Abramovich’s most high-profile and probably least-secure employee feels the needs to criticise chanting by his own fans, you know a line has been crossed.

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Sovereign states buying global football clubs has become increasingly popular. It is never cuddly liberal democracies who do it.

It is not always the big boys either. Sheffield United are owned by a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

Some have done a lot of good along the way, like the regeneration the Abu Dhabi group have overseen around Manchester since buying Manchester City.

But what they have bought with it is a blind eye.

The Newcastle MP who stood up in the House of Commons a couple of years ago condemning the Saudis was prepared to cheerlead for them when they wanted to buy out Mike Ashley – no goody two-shoes but not in the same league of despotism.

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Like Russia, Saudi Arabia is at war with a neighbour – Yemen.

This was pointed out to Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe in last week’s uncomfortable press conference.

“I’ll only react to clear facts I have in front of me,” he replied, not unreasonably.

So clear facts were put in front of him: “Saudi Arabia is involved in a war with its neighbour and Russia’s involved in a war with its neighbour and being sanctioned for that. So does that mean Saudi Arabia could be looked at as well with regards to whether you could buy players?”

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“I’m a football manager and I’m coaching the team to try and get results and that’s all I’m going to comment on,” came the reply.

What else was Howe likely to do, really? The nastier your bosses’ reputations, the more unwise it is to start slagging them off in public.

But it is a sign that even an intelligent man like Howe can close his mind to horrendous behaviour when sport is involved.

It is fine for Chelsea supporters to view Abramovich as a good owner of their football club, but that does not give him a free pass to do what he likes outside of the game.

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As fans we must never judge owners or tournament hosts as people and regimes positively or negatively just on that small part of their lives they allow us a glimpse of. If we do, the sportswashers have won and society has been taken to the cleaners.

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