Abramovich is gone from the Premier League - who, if anyone, should follow?

Johnny Watterson: Prepare for endless whataboutery aimed at Newcastle and City

Roman Abramovich, like comrade Vladimir Putin's slow invasion of Ukraine, apparently didn't move fast enough. His hurried attempt to exit Stamford Bridge had Harry Maguire's pace and Vinny Jones' touch.

The misfortunes of Chelsea over the last few days, if nothing else, illustrates how Russia failed to accurately read the Ukraine room and misjudged how the rest of the world would react.

The sanctions against Russia and the oligarchs may not have come quickly enough for some but Abramovich is stuck with a Chelsea football club where only existing season ticket holders can attend games, the club shop is closed and any transfer activity suspended. He cannot make money from the company.

Chelsea is in aspic. Only the club’s status as a ‘significant cultural asset’ has given it a special license to continue existing on life support. For the club, it is a calamity. For the rest of the world, it’s the first tangible sign of sanctions exacting a real price for the invasion of a European country.

The fallout, much like Chelsea’s immediate and long term future, has yet to be felt with the club continuing to engage in discussions with the UK Government regarding the scope of the license. Chelsea has already announced that tickets will not go on sale for the FA Cup game against Middlesbrough next week.

Other clubs in the Premier League may soon begin to feel the heat. From the discomfort of Abramovich a reasonable fear is whether Chelsea sanctions could spark a contagion, whet appetites to examine the provenance of other money sloshing around the league.

There is no evidence either that other fans will empathise with the London club. Loyal as hounds, fans are devoted to their teams. They wear the shirts, spend on tattoos and conduct their weekly pilgrimage. Loyalties even pass from generation to generation.

But the flip side of that is fans also harbor enmity and rancour for each other. In a poll taken in 2020 by UK station TalkSport on the most hated clubs, the result was close but decisive.

Chelsea topped it with 68.7 per cent with Manchester United second on 68.1 per cent. Liverpool was considered the third most hated team on 52.8 per cent, while West Ham 47.6 per cent and Arsenal 46.2 per cent completed the top five.

The tribal nature of supporting Chelsea and their current state of shock about what has just taken place could trigger a justified fit of whataboutery and demand for greater interrogation of the other Premier League clubs. If Chelsea is going to be burned to the ground why should Newcastle United or, Manchester City be left standing?

Last weekend in their Manchester derby match against United, City players emerged from the tunnel wearing t-shirts with a message reading ‘no war’.

City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour from the UAE, is part of a Saudi led coalition that invaded Yemen in 2015. They called it intervention. Unlike Abramovich he is intrinsically part of a war machine that bombs civilians.

The City players may or may not know that war is intensifying, not easing. The Houthis, who the coalition is fighting, escalated the conflict when they fired missiles at Abu Dhabi in January.

It is a point not lost on managers either. Newcastle's head coach, Eddie Howe was recently interviewed and asked about the Russians of Everton and Chelsea.

Everton suspended all sponsorship deals with Russian companies backed by Alisher Usmanov. The Uzbekistan-born billionaire is a close business associate of Everton's majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, and involved in several multi million-pound sponsorship deals with the club.

“It’s very difficult for me to comment on other football clubs. You ask me a question about this football club I will answer but I’m not going to get drawn into that,” said a defensive Howe.

On that day the face of the club, Howe was then asked if he was concerned the authorities will look at Newcastle next because the Saudis, whose Sovereign Wealth Fund hold a controlling interest, are bombing a neighbour, Yemen just as Russia are bombing a neighbour, Ukraine.

“I’ll only react to clear facts that I have in front of me, so I couldn’t comment on things like that,” he said. “It’s not relevant to me. I’m a football manager. I’m coaching the team to get results and that’s all I’m going to comment on.”

What didn't seem to matter to the Premier League or anyone else prior to this week is that Abramovich and others accumulated their wealth from a deal with Boris Yeltsin, who was broke and running for re-election as Russian President in 1996.

In return for their support of his campaign a rigged privatisation took place, whereby Yeltsin organised the sale of the mineral wealth of the Russian people at a knock-down price to an anointed few including the Chelsea owner. On that money the team blossomed.

What might truly shake Chelsea fans to their core is that MMA star and whiskey mogul, Conor McGregor, tweeted before the club was put on ice, that he had an interest in buying it.

The ‘fit and proper person’ test could now swing into action for club ownership as politicians pile on. But last week’s Politico take on ‘Why Britain’s Tories are addicted to Russian Money’ and ‘Londongrad’s’ deep immersion in oligarch cash is quite the painful rub.

The timing, nonetheless, is sweet. Abramovich is gone from the Premier League. Who, if anyone, should follow?

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