This week we saw Chelsea and Manchester City progress to the semi-finals of Europe’s elite Champions League competition. They will be joined by Real Madrid and PSG (Paris Saint-Germain).
What could be better than seeing four Goliaths of European football battle it out for the glittering prize of the Champions League, and to be named champions of Europe, or even the BEST team in Europe?
When I say ‘Goliaths’ of European football, what I mean is ‘richest’. The four semi-finalists all sit within the top eight richest clubs in Europe. If you consider that before Liverpool and Bayern Munich exited the competition this week, six of the eight richest clubs in the World were still left in the competition.
It’s so disheartening to see fans tribalism defending their club ownerships. Elite football clubs do not care about you. The sad truth is, none value their staff or their fans. They are ruthless, corporate machines who occasionally masquerade as “community” for empty PR nonsense.— Colin Millar (@Millar_Colin) April 14, 2021
One thing clearly notable about this year’s semi-finalists is the collective ownership and eye watering amount of investment from the oil rich states of Qatar and the UAE, a Russian oligarch, and a club seeking keynote investment from Saudi Arabia.
Leaked documents published in The Times appear to reveal that Real Madrid have been in advanced talks with Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Qiddiya project about a €150 million (£130 million) partnership deal.
The level of investment flowing into European clubs from these sources raises moral and ethical concerns. For instance, the Middle-East countries are each accused of well publicised human rights abuses. Elsewhere, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has been caught up in a UK Government crackdown on Russian businessmen applying for investor visas. This resulted from Kremlin critics and anti-corruption groups complaining that the UK had made it too easy for both dirty Russian money and Putin’s allies to flow into the UK.
Football financing at the elite level has long been under scrutiny, and yesterday it was even reported that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to intervene in his £300m Newcastle United takeover bid after it was blocked by the Premier League.
Reports stated that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned Boris Johnson that Anglo-Saudi relations would be damaged if the takeover was not allowed to go ahead. Allegedly, the Crown Prince wanted Prime Minister Johnson to intervene in the £300million bid. However, the Premier League had concerns over alleged state-backed broadcast piracy.
So why are overseas billionaires, oligarchs and regimes so eager to get in on the European elite football scene? Over the past two years, some have pointed to the term ‘Sportswashing’.
Sportswashing describes how sport can be used to launder a reputation, gloss a human rights record, or even to cleanse bloodstained hands.
Sportswashing refers to wielding a soft power and presenting a face to the world. In other words, a corrupt individual, an ideology or a regime could easily be ‘normalised’ through a close association with an incredibly popular sport.
Of course, as soon as you start digging you’ll find moral and ethical questions hanging over most Premier League clubs, all littered with different and dubious financial, product or regime connections. For instance, how many clubs are or have been sponsored by betting companies, fast loan firms, tobacco, or high polluting companies, or even products associated with human rights abuses?
If you want to get political, Arsenal’s Stan Kronke donated £1m to the Donald Trump campaign. Or you could even point to the fact that Arsenal distanced itself from Mezut Ozil’s comments relating to the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China after the country pulled the Arsenal game from its broadcasting schedule.
It’s impossible to condemn one club for accepting finance from a particular regime or individual without looking at every other club. However, as Kate Allen, Amnesty International UK’s director, told the Guardian back in 2019: “We’re not saying who should and shouldn’t be buying into European football, but we want all clubs to understand that their overseas owners may be using the prestige of elite football to effectively ‘rebrand’ themselves.
“Instead of actually tackling abuse, many countries with atrocious human rights records have a habit of enlisting expensive PR firms – and football ownership can be another form of PR. ‘Sportswashing’ is likely to grow as the reach of global sport also grows, but at the same time fans and the wider public are beginning to look beyond the glamour of the star players and the bulging trophy cabinets.
Featured image Etihad Stadium, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons