On Sunday, Liverpool will take on Chelsea in the League Cup final. It’s the first chance at silverware this season for Liverpool. For Chelsea, it’s a chance to follow up their Club World Cup triumph by laying down a domestic marker.
It is also, unavoidably, a game that in some small way will act as a stand-in for larger world events, as the Premier League’s original sportswashing giant owned by a Russian oligarch who has used the club to burnish his image and further his goals at home and abroad takes on a Liverpool side whose supporters are historically primed in opposition to that.
As Russia, led by a man Chelsea’s owner quite literally helped to power and who in turn helped to further enrich him such that he could buy Chelsea Football Club, engages in an unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, there will be a football game.
Connecting the two feels absurd bordering on the surreal, and teasing the tribalist instincts of football fandom out of any talk about it difficult, yet Chelsea’s owner’s links to the current crisis unfolding in Eastern Europe are inarguable and hard to ignore. The bear in the room everyone would rather avoid talking about.
“We should not pretend this is not an issue,” was the response of Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel when asked about the situation ahead of the match, and regardless anything else he deserves credit for not attempting to dodge the issue entirely.
“I would love to take my right not to comment, but we are aware of it and it is distracting and worrying us and to a certain degree I can understand the critical opinions towards us and those who represent the club. Nobody expected this. It’s pretty unreal.
“Like I said it’s clouding our minds, it’s clouding our excitement towards the final, and it brings huge uncertainty—much more for all the people and families who are actually involved [in the war]. Our thoughts are obviously with them, which is absolutely the most important thing.”
Football, at the end of the day, is a silly game. A distraction. One that can seem especially absurd when it’s carried out in the face of a growing crisis—whether that crisis is a global pandemic or the needless invasion of another country, one that will lead to countless deaths and immeasurable misery for the victims of it.
It may not be the fault of Tuchel and Chelsea’s players, but on Sunday for many they will serve as a stand-in of sorts for Russian violence in Ukraine. When they are, it will be not because of the tribal instincts of Liverpool fans.
Rather it will be because the person who owns their club can be said to be at least in part responsible for the blood being spilled in cities like Kyiv where many of the Liverpool fans in attendance on Sunday will have gathered to cheer on their club in a Champions League final in 2018.
There’s really nothing good that can be said about that. Nothing productive that will come of it. Yet it’s impossible not to talk about it, to acknowledge it, and the larger geopolitical reality will colour—at least in some small way—how the game is played on Sunday and how people react to it.