As Russian troops massed at Ukraine’s border last week and anxiety about a pending land war in Europe grew from gnawing to alarming, Chelsea—one of the most successful English soccer teams of the young century—smashed Lille 2–0 in its opening fixture of the Union of European Football Associations Champions League Round of 16. For a team that has wobbled recently—with its star striker Romelu Lukaku, brought on for £100 million ($134 million) only eight months earlier, falling out with the team’s manager, Thomas Tuchel—it was a glorious return to the form that had led them to win the tournament last year.
Sports are often a welcome distraction in dark times (unless you’re a fan of Tottenham). Chelsea’s victory over Manchester City in last year’s Champions League final was exactly that: Played in late May, the match reflected the mood of the moment, when everything seemed to be humming back to life after more than a year of uncertainty. But those teams were still emblematic of much that was wrong with the sport and, for that matter, the world: Chelsea is owned by Roman Abramovich, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin; Manchester City is controlled by the United Arab Emirates, which uses it as soft power to whitewash human rights violations. But on a beautiful May day, after a miserable year, is there anything better than a soccer championship?
Alas, last week’s game between Lille and Chelsea was far from a balm. Rather, it was a reminder of just how thoroughly European soccer has been corrupted by money and, in particular, autocratic petrostates—and how it may be too late to undo the damage done by the cynical courting of lawless autocrats and billionaires. Abramovich has in recent years rarely been allowed into the U.K. to watch the team he owns play in its London stadium. He was, however, present as Chelsea won the FIFA Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates earlier this month. Abramovich was reportedly directed to buy Chelsea by none other than Vladimir Putin as “part of a scheme to corrupt the West” and “build a bulkhead of Russian influence,” according to journalist Catherine Belton’s recent book Putin’s People. (Abramovich disputes the claim and recently settled a defamation lawsuit brought against Belton.)
But team ownership is not the only problem. As the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 unfolded, viewers were constantly reminded of the competition’s close ties to Russia. Ads for Gazprom, the Russian state majority-owned energy company, were splashed around every stadium in the competition. (Last year, Gazprom also sponsored what may be the most depressing award in the history of sports: the first ever NFT trophy for the best goal in the European Championships.) During commercial and commentary breaks, we were reminded that the year’s final was set to be played in St. Petersburg.
Meanwhile, two Russian clubs were still in contention for a trophy in UEFA’s secondary competition, the Europa League—Zenit St. Petersburg, Putin’s favorite team, was knocked out of the tournament this week, but Spartak Moscow is still in contention. Russia’s national team has a World Cup qualifier against Poland coming up next month. These are the fruits of a concentrated, decades-long effort among international soccer’s elite organizations to deepen relations with Russia, which reached its apex when the country hosted the 2018 World Cup. As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian politics for the Institute of International Relations, told the Los Angeles Times in 2018, that World Cup was a “soft power win” for Putin, “not just in terms of the fanfare, but also the coverage in press that says, ‘Russia isn’t such a horrible place after all.’”
The risk of this courtship was always clear. Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions, his ruthless crackdowns of any and all dissent, his megalomania and determination to hold onto power at all costs were hardly being concealed. But international soccer’s grandees have a lot of practice in looking the other way. A simple Google search reveals a trove of unsavory information about the United Arab Emirates in moments. Saudi Arabia, which is currently waging a profoundly inhumane war in Yemen and whose de facto leader recently ordered the butchering of a journalist, was given the green light to buy Newcastle United by the English Premier League just last year. All of this scandal exists for the simple reason that money—not quality of play, certainly not any form of morality—has long been what matters most to the sport’s owners and governing bodies.
UEFA’s response to the invasion of Ukraine has been swifter and more aggressive than anyone had the right to expect. On Friday, it moved the Champions League Final from St. Petersburg to Paris. It is also in talks to strip Gazprom of its sponsorship of the competition. (Interestingly, the figure being bandied about for that sponsorship, £33.5 million per year, is quite low given its prominence in what is arguably the world’s most important annual competition.) It’s not just UEFA taking action. Schalke 04, a German team, announced on Thursday that it would be ending its relationship with Gazprom, whose logo currently adorns the front of the team’s jerseys. Manchester United, meanwhile, dropped Russian state airliner Aeroflot on Friday, albeit without much fanfare. There is expected to be a pro-Ukraine, anti-war statement made ahead of Sunday’s English Football League Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea, but even this is being muted, reportedly out of concern that some Chelsea supporters may bristle at criticism of the country that is partly responsible for several recent additions to its trophy cabinet. (In fairness to Chelsea’s supporters, I’ve seen little online to suggest that the team’s fans are rooting for Putin’s imperialism, and I say this as a Liverpool supporter.)
But all of this is too little and too late. The rush to let anyone with a bank account big enough into the sport has made these kinds of actions hollow. They also lead to an unfortunate raft of whataboutism. After all, why should clubs with ties to Russia be punished when Saudi Arabia is blockading Yemen, causing one of the most destructive famines in the world? UEFA, FIFA, and other governing bodies thought that they could get around this by insisting that the sport is bigger than politics, or at least that it was separate from it. Saudi Arabia may be a human rights–abusing petrostate, but who doesn’t want to see Newcastle succeed after decades of mediocrity? Russia may be run by a despot whose needless military adventurism will result in the death of thousands of Ukrainians, but Chelsea’s recent run of success is a net positive.
As The New York Times’ Rory Smith noted in his excellent newsletter, this is a problem of the sport’s own making. “This is a price that soccer long ago decided was worth paying, when it elected to pursue money and glamor and influence at all costs, when it chose to open its doors to anyone who wanted a part of it, regardless of their morals or their motives, as long as they were good for the money, when it allowed itself to be hijacked by those who saw it not as an end but a means, not as a sport but as a vehicle.” This blind pursuit of money at all costs has corrupted the sport in ways both big and small, and yet despite the abundance of evident shame and scandal it has brought, these trends have arguably only increased in recent years.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be a wake-up call, a reminder that there are dire consequences to welcoming any two-bit thug with a wallet overflowing with cash to purchase legitimacy. But it may be too late for all that: The sport has long since been given over to its own form of power politics, in which the richest and cruelest buy their way to the top. Later this year, the World Cup will open in Qatar, in facilities built by slaves, and there will be another round of “how did it come to this?” handwringing, and the same answer in reply.