'Expulsion of Russian influence from football FINALLY marks beginning of the end for sportswashing'

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Ben Peppi is head of sports services at JMW Solicitors. He has overseen deals involving Anthony Joshua and West Ham striker Michail Antonio, as well as many Premier League teams, Premiership Rugby sides and national governing bodies, He is regarded as one of the leading commercial and marketing experts in sport.

When sport sells its soul, it leads to the exploitation of the most powerful cultural asset on the planet.

The uncomfortable relationship between sport and politics has never been more obvious than in 2022 with a Winter Olympics in Beijing, a World Cup in Qatar and the formation of a proposed Saudi Golf League.

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned a the tide of acceptance and will spell the beginning of the end for sportswashing.

‘Sportswashing’ – the use of sport by an individual, group, corporation, or nation-state to improve their tarnished reputation – works.

For too long the political world has had the upper hand.

The idea that politics should be kept out of sport has formed the basis to a defensive narrative, which justifies those in power spending hundreds of millions of pounds owning football clubs, hosting the world’s leading sporting events and sponsors and brands using sport for political gain.

Think Saudia Arabia, Qatar and Gazprom.

The 65,000-capacity Gazprom Arena was due to host this season's Champion's League final

The 65,000-capacity Gazprom Arena was due to host this season’s Champion’s League final

Football, in particular, turns a blind eye to the long-term effects of influential executives cosying up to policymakers.

On receiving an Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin in 2019, FIFA President Gianni Infantino remarked: ‘the world has created bonds of friendship with Russia that will last forever.’

Ben Peppi is head of sports services at JMW Solicitors

Ben Peppi is head of sports services at JMW Solicitors

In this case ‘forever’ has been short lived.

However, football is biting back and the ethical, moral and social lens sport is now viewed through will mean that it is not just wealth which that matters.

Sportswashing as we once knew it will be pretty much impossible as a result of this.

The announcement this week that Roman Abramovich is to sell Chelsea Football Club, an owner who for many kicked off the modern sportswashing era, represents this profound shift.

In a statement, Abramovich stated his decision to sell was ‘in the best interests of the club, the fans and the employees.’

Abramovich was never at Chelsea to make a profit – that much has always been clear – but if he has decided a £1.5bn loan doesn’t need to be repaid, what does that say about his true intentions when he purchased the club?

Roman Abramovich has announced he will sell Chelsea Football Club and wants £3BN

Roman Abramovich has announced he will sell Chelsea Football Club and wants £3BN

He didn’t know the supporters or the employees then and he didn’t do it for financial reasons.

Chelsea was purchased to protect Abramovich; he did it to create a positive international profile. Sport was used for political gain.

The start of an era which then saw oil money transfer the balance of power in English football culminated late last year in the Saudi ownership of Newcastle United.

The ramifications of the past week have led to calls for the Premier League to enact a human rights element to their owners and directors test.

Too little, too late.

Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine has lasted 10 days and brought devastation to the country

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has lasted 10 days and brought devastation to the country

Natali Sevriukova, a resident of Kyiv, is pictured weeping on the streets of Kyiv after a Russian rocket strike destroyed the apartment block where she lives overnight

Natali Sevriukova, a resident of Kyiv, is pictured weeping on the streets of Kyiv after a Russian rocket strike destroyed the apartment block where she lives overnight

People crowd onto platforms  as they try to get on a train to Lviv at the Kyiv station

People crowd onto platforms  as they try to get on a train to Lviv at the Kyiv station

Would the Premier League have sanctioned Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund’s purchase of 80% of the club, a body with close ties to the Saudi state and their abhorrent human rights record and participation in conflict across Yemen, if this had existed just a few months ago?

The answer is no, and due diligence must improve.

The general feeling at clubs is that while this has long been the accepted practice, the globalised yet volatile environment we now find ourselves in will mean clubs like Newcastle United will be on alert.

They will be watching the events of the past week, knowing that the intense scrutiny they were already under will be heightened even further.

Clubs cannot shy away from matters like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, nor can they be in any way associated.

Newcastle United's English minority owner Amanda Staveley (L) with her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi (R)

Newcastle United’s English minority owner Amanda Staveley (L) with her husband Mehrdad Ghodoussi (R)

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has used migrant labour to build the stadiums and infrastructure

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has used migrant labour to build the stadiums and infrastructure

It is no surprise then that Newcastle United’s club director Amanda Staveley called Abramovich’s situation ‘unfair’ earlier this week, as it would be logical to think that all forms of sportwashing will be in the crosshairs of any effective regulator of English football following the expulsion of Russian influence.

Newcastle United’s ambitious plans require world-class players, but stars are not going to find the prospect of a team being owned by a state with a questionable human rights record appealing, even if money talks.

Nor will commercial partners – Everton have had to suspend deals with Russian companies USM, Megafon and Yota due to the scrutiny they have come under this week.

While it would be wrong to suggest hitting Newcastle United’s owners in the pockets will have much of an impact, we should not rule out significant action against stakeholders by the Premier League or UK government further down the line either.

It should not have taken a hostile invasion for the world to recognise sportswashing as an insidious problem within the game, but decision makers, teams and organisations are finally being held accountable.

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