A conversation with a football industry insider – The Oxford Student

I sat down with an anonymous source who has been in the football industry for nearly 20 years to ask the two main questions Chelsea fans have been asking since early March… what exactly is sports washing, how that works ? and are American landlords really that bad?

At the beginning of March this year, my football club, Chelsea FC, was sanctioned by the British government. Their owner, Roman Abramovich, is described as Putin’s ‘favorite son’ and indeed it was this close relationship with the Russian regime that led to the freezing of Chelsea’s assets. This article does not seek to explore the politics or legality of this process. Despite all my tribal instincts, one has to accept that this was a necessary and poignant action on the part of the British government in response to the ongoing invasion of Ukraine. A good decision.

However, what I will explore are the consequences of this process. Indeed, Chelsea fans, myself included, were faced with two fundamental questions…. have we fallen into the trap of sport-washing? and what does the future hold for our football club?

These two avenues of discussion were both prompted by Chelsea fans’ responses to the sanctions; the embarrassing announcement of Roman Abramovich as some kind of “victim” in this process. His name continues to be sung by a certain bald Caucasian, gold-toothed, Brexit-loving sect of the fanbase made me face the realities of sports washing. Likewise, the near-apocalyptic fan panic on social media over the prospect of having American owners in the wake of the club’s impending takeover has me wondering if they’re really as bad as we claim?

Speaking to a source who has been in football for almost 20 years, with great insider knowledge, I sought to allay my fears and shed some light on the realities of football, but especially Chelsea.

It’s important to note from the lag that sports washing is a big topic. My source was keen to point out that when it comes to sport-washing, you have to look beyond football, with F1 and the Olympics being the main sporting bodies guilty of promoting the practice. Indeed, there is apparently a fatality surrounding it. The circumstances of the host city selection processes make it unavoidable.

My source explained how, unfortunately, federations like the IOC ask their host countries to pay for everything while simultaneously exploiting sponsorship and media rights, keeping the money. Stressing that this means there is little financial motivation for these host cities. Therefore, we have World Cups in Russia and Qatar, Olympics in Beijing or F1 races in Saudi Arabia. The selection requirements of these host countries mean that most counties, willing to spend the necessary money, have a different motivation – that of improving their reputation. The sport is highly publicized and hosting a World Cup or F1 Grand Prix offers states a useful way to cover up their political or social misdeeds.

Poignantly, to my source, it seemed like an almost laughable myth that governing bodies are there for the good of the sport. Most of these federations are run for the good of the president and those around them. Finding host countries that are willing to take on such responsibility without any financial impetus allows these governing bodies to retain their profits and disperse them to retain their votes. Interestingly, my source noted that’s what made Super League an interesting concept in how it took that power away.

Therefore, we are forced to ask what of the fans? Unfortunately, as my source was quick to point out, there isn’t much room for fans in this issue. It seems like it’s really only the government that can fight this……hooray!

Again, in an almost inevitable cycle, you have to look to the government to find the main source of the problem. So what can, or has, our UK government do to prevent owners from taking over our clubs and using them as tools to improve their reputation? Unfortunately, it seems that this problem has arisen due to the inaction of governments. The British government never really cared about football. Successive governments have ignored the position of sports and British clubs in the community. They failed to protect it from outside investment, and ultimately aren’t we to blame? ! The fans really only cared about success rather than integrity. I speak for myself in this regard – a Chelsea fan for almost 20 years who has only just decided to think critically about washing sports. That’s what we get – a bunch of profit-seeking Americans or other foreign parties looking to boost their reputation. It’s high time to decide which of them is the worst.

“…to my source, it seemed like an almost laughable myth that governing bodies are there for the good of the sport.”

However, my source was quick to back me up on this assumption – are US landlords really that bad? Should they be considered a bad thing? They went on to point out that if British football were to open up to outside investment, it was an almost inevitable consequence. We are either at the whim of owners who make money a near farce, throwing it carefree. Or we’ll have owners who treat it like a business investment, looking to make long-term profits.

In many ways, American owners – or any owner who is looking for a financial incentive rather than an image-based image – are the only reasonable solution to sport-washing in football at the property level, within the framework of British football. People like me have to accept that it is better for society to have owners who will come and seek to sell the club in the future for more than they have paid, than those who come to cover the troubled waters of the state they represent. Personally, I’d rather my club owned a Boston-based investment company that might not waste money like other clubs, but owning them won’t lead to my fans chanting the name of a man who is directly involved in the invasion of a sovereign nation and the murder of thousands of innocent civilians.

“Sport has been smeared, we must act to prevent society from going in the same direction”

We have to accept that our football clubs have been treated like commodities for decades. Nonetheless, fandom is inherently irrational, it’s a passionate lifestyle. This subsequently distorts the fans’ view of what’s going on, who’s good and who’s bad. We UK football fans need to take a step back and recognize the bigger picture. While American owners, like the Glazers, can be castigated as parasites sucking money from Manchester United, that’s what happens when a cultural cornerstone of our society goes unprotected by our government. Bad owners come into play. However, in the long run, I would still rather have “bad owners” like the Glazers than let our football clubs as tools for political games. For them to own a club, fans’ view of basic notions of right and wrong is distorted by success on a football pitch. These days, there are simply two choices for Premier League clubs: to be run for profit or in disguise.

Football is a messy and depressing subject – even more so when framed within the British model of club ownership. For fans like me who claim to see football clubs as more than just teams playing on the pitch but as pillars of the community, there is no happy solution. Sport has been smeared by those who practice sport-washing, we must act to prevent society from going in the same direction. Or, most likely, nothing will change. These problems are long-term – they have bigger consequences, but they take time to develop. As long as the fan keeps watching great performances, they’ll probably never care.

Image Description: Russian President Valdimir Putin with FIFA President Gianni Infantino

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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