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Abramovich's Ambiguity Is at the Heart of Football's Role in the Russia-Ukraine War

Shows of solidarity with Ukraine on the field are made more complicated by entanglements between clubs, organizations and Russian leadership.

Initially, at least, the statement was bewildering. Roman Abramovich was “giving trustees of Chelsea’s charitable Foundation the stewardship and care of Chelsea FC.” It was soon clarified that he remains the owner and that there were numerous complications about passing the club over to its trustees. But the question remained: What was going on?

Clearly, this means something. It’s probably an attempt to distance the club from Abramovich should he become the subject of sanctions imposed by the U.K. government—of course, he has always downplayed his links to Vladimir Putin, and there seems, at the moment, to be only a slim possibility that Chelsea could be involved. After all, while Chelsea has clearly benefited enormously from Abramovich’s investment—he has loaned the club £1.5 billion without taking repayment—it would take a government even more out of step with public opinion than this one to risk bankrupting the European champion.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich

Then, after his insistence that he is not involved in politics, Abramovich was revealed to be involved in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. "I can confirm that the Ukrainian side have been trying to find someone in Russia willing to help them in finding a peaceful resolution," said the film director Alexander Rodnyansky.

"They are connected to Roman Abramovich through the Jewish community and reached out to him for help. Abramovich has been trying to mobilize support for a peaceful resolution ever since. Although Abramovich's influence is limited, he is the only one who responded and taken it upon himself to try. If this will have an impact or not, I don't know, but I am in contact with [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy's staff myself, and know that they are grateful for his genuine efforts."

There are political games being played on all sides here, and it’s far from clear what Abramovich’s role is. Chelsea was criticized for the brief statement it released on Sunday that referred to the “situation in Ukraine” as “horrific and devastating” without mentioning Russia or referring to a “war” or an “invasion.” It’s unlikely Abramovich had any direct input into that, and, particularly given how low-profile he has always remained, it’s implausible that he should make any public statement on the conflict. He, like the other oligarchs, must tread a fine political line between Putin on the one hand and the general global political opinion on the other.

Football, more generally, has become a stage for demonstrations of solidarity. That can at times feel absurd, but as the most global cultural mode, it is probably inevitable. The demonstrations of solidarity with Ukrainian players and the displays of Ukrainian flags may mean little practically, but they are at least a gesture to people in Ukraine that they are neither forgotten nor alone.

These are not, though, straightforward issues. Moving as the scenes of support for Ukraine before Everton’s defeat to Manchester City were (both sides feature Ukrainian players), Everton has ties with Alisher Usmanov, another oligarch who has denied involvement with Putin, while Man City is owned by Sheikh Mansour, a representative of the UAE government, which abstained in a vote against sanctions for Russia at the United Nations.

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That symbolic power is relevant also to the ongoing wrangling about Russia’s World Cup qualifier against Poland, which is scheduled for next month, with the winner to play either Sweden or the Czech Republic for a place in Qatar. All three of those nations have made clear they will refuse to play and have rejected FIFA's initial attempt to circumvent the issue by having Russia play on neutral ground under the name of the Russian Football Union.

Vladimir Putin and Roman Abramovich

England, Scotland and Ireland have all said they will refuse to play Russia, which creates issues for this summer’s women’s Euros, hosted by England and for which Russia has qualified, and may signal a broader militancy on the part of UEFA. If that is the case, it’s hard to see how FIFA can do anything other than expel Russia, rather than risk a mass European boycott of the World Cup (which itself has ramifications for the ongoing political battle between FIFA and UEFA).

UEFA, meanwhile, having moved the Champions League final from St. Petersburg to Paris, must make a decision on the continued involvement of Spartak Moscow in the Europa League. It is scheduled to play away to RB Leipzig next week, but it seems unlikely that game will happen, not just because of the reluctance of the German authorities to admit a Russian team, but because of the near-impossibility of travel. Reports suggest the club will be expelled, with Leipzig given a pass to the quarterfinals.

(UPDATE: FIFA and UEFA announced jointly Monday that "all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice," effectively barring Russia from World Cup qualifying, pending a potential appeals process. Spartak Moscow is also now out of the Europa League.)

The tendency of sports governing bodies, understandably, is to avoid political involvement where possible. FIFA and UEFA don’t like to be arbitrating on whether conflicts cross some line after which they must take action. But this is one of those occasions when action is unavoidable.

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