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War In Ukraine & A Very Political Cup Final Between Chelsea And Liverpool

Liverpool and Chelsea supporters have long had ideological differences. The war in Ukraine will likely ignite these tensions.

Soccer - Russia 2018 Press Conference - Zurich Exhibition Centre
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, laughing at a speech by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin
Photo by Anthony Devlin/PA Images via Getty Images

Before a single drop of digital ink is shared, I’ll have to preface this entire thing by talking about money in sports, and how it makes a hypocrite out of all of us. It’s ubiquitous and inescapable. In any elite league, in any elite sport, no matter how smart you are—no matter how hard you Moneyball—you can’t escape the financial reality that cash is king. The wealthiest teams can afford to make mistakes. The wealthiest teams will rise to the top, given a long enough time scale.

Liverpool is, by any metric, a very wealthy club. Jokes and banter about net spend aside, we as Liverpool fans are very lucky to have owners that invest vast sums of money into the club.

As Liverpool supporters, we have to look in the mirror on this one. Because the vast majority of Liverpool supporters are of the leftist or socialist persuasion, and are therefore likely to believe that billionaires, as a general rule, shouldn’t exist. And we are, of course, owned by a billionaire, John Henry.

John Henry is, as billionaires go, fine. Not overtly evil. He almost certainly had to do horrible things to accumulate such absurd wealth, but as things go, pretty standard-issue billionaire stuff. And so we have the following arrangement: Henry and FSG do right by Liverpool, and Liverpool supporters live with that cogitative dissonance.

Some billionaire owners are not so “innocent,” and of all the horrible people owning football clubs, both in the chronology of English football and by any objective measure, Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich is near the top of that list.

Abramovich came into our lives in 2003 when he bought Chelsea Football Club. He showed us all—including future football club owners in Saudi Arabia and the UAE—how to invest massively into a club to gain success on and, at least as importantly for that sort of owner, off the pitch. He showed the world the prestige that could be won and how a wee bit of sportswashing could do an oligarch’s image some good no matter how bloody his past.

In short, there are billionaires and then there are billionaires who are effectively backed by a human rights abusing regime. Or in Abramovich’s case, someone who has been intimately involved in backing a human rights abusing regime, with the Chelsea owner having been directly involved in Vladimir Putin’s rise to power before he bought the club and having become actively involved in funding the expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands in the years since.

There’s standard issue billionaire evil. Then there’s people like Abramovich.

With the emergence of Manchester City (and soon Newcastle, no doubt), and that club having taken Chelsea’s financial doping idea to the extreme, it’s almost been easy to forget the role Abramovich and Chelsea played in the exacerbation of football inflation over the last 20 years.

From a purely football perspective, this financial doping nearly ruined Liverpool as they struggled to catch up. Instead, they merely spent a few years in the football wilderness, and now other big clubs—Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, and even Everton—are struggling with the same problems that come from trying to chase down league rivals with seemingly unlimited funding.

Now, none of these “big clubs,” Liverpool included, are entitled success. But equally, their fame and fortunes were earned in some way organically, through their successes and failures over years and decades on the pitch. And they always appeared to offer something of a template: be good enough for long enough and you might be able to catch up. Now, the standard is that if you become the plaything of a blood and oil soaked regime, as Newcastle now have, you might be able to catch up.

The knock-on effect further down the pyramid is incalculable. How many teams have been relegated—or worse—because of Chelsea and Manchester City’s success and the rapidly spiralling costs that has helped to drive?

At the best of times, Liverpool’s socialist and independent on one hand and Chelsea’s Tory, nationalist, and royalist philosophies can create an especially bitter clash for clubs without an otherwise especially noteworthy historical rivalry. I, for one, was looking forward to the predictable fume when Liverpool supporters did what they always do and booed “God Save the Queen” on Sunday.

Indeed, Liverpool supporters haven’t needed to dip a toe into the “owned by a horrible Russian oligarch” pool to find reasons to hate, at least in football terms, Chelsea and their supporters. That is likely to change tomorrow due to the war in Ukraine.

There is already tension, with the EFL reportedly interested in showing some sign of solidarity with Ukraine, a gesture that Liverpool fans will undoubtedly support, and some that there have been reports of fears amongst those organizing the game that Chelsea fans will not. It is incumbent on Liverpool supporters to make sure that whatever weak message the EFL does come up with is amplified as loudly and aggressively as possible.

This all may be rather too political for some. As if playing the national anthem before a game isn’t political. Or having a team owned (or effectively owned) by a nation-state that cares as much or more about what owning the club does for their position, power, and image off the pitch as for anything that happens on it isn’t political.

We cannot keep sports apolitical if politics and political figures continue interfering with sports. If politicians, oligarchs, and nation-states continue coopting sports—with the frequent and eager help of national federations and the various governing bodies—to suit their purposes, than so must we.

Many will be watching Liverpool—and its supporters—tomorrow just as surely as they’re watching, with horror, the unfolding events in Ukraine. It may not count for much in the larger scheme, and it likely won’t make any real difference, but for ourselves if nothing else let’s continue to try to be on the right side of history. That includes standing up to Putin, Abramovich, and their ilk.

There is a football match tomorrow, but in some ways it feels much bigger than just a cup final. It’s a proxy war in a larger ideological struggle. Good vs. Evil. Law vs. Lawlessness. Democracy vs. Oligarchy and Dictatorship.

And it isn’t those things because some Liverpool fans will make a point of bringing up who owns Chelsea Football Club. It’s those things because of who owns Chelsea Football Club, the things that ownership has done to the sport, and the things beyond sport he’s used that ownership for.

Whose side are you on?

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