Roll up, roll up to Cirque du Grotesque at Stamford Bridge. On an afternoon that had already been dubbed the Game of Shame, the Despot Derby or El Sportswashico, depending on the source of your pre-match reading, Chelsea earned a defiant three points thanks to Kai Havertz’s magical late goal.
But the football was always going to be secondary against a Newcastle United that could face a reckoning of its own down the line and while fears of Roman Abramovich’s name being sung persistently by a majority never materialised, it was impossible to escape the wider context of this uncomfortable and bleak event.
Outside Stamford Bridge supporters were met by a row of cameras and microphones, an open invitation to offer their opinions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Predictably, those that lacked perspective were the ones clipped for social media. “We all feel bad for the Ukrainian people, of course we do, but why should we have to suffer when it’s nothing to do with us?” said one man old enough to have been around when Chelsea teetered closer to the brink of existence several decades ago. Another stood at the Britannia Gate holding an A4 piece of paper that read: “Don’t use Chelsea for your bull**** politics. Forever Chelsea.”
That a not insignificant proportion of fans think that this is all a convoluted scheme to destroy their club is troubling. Whatever about imposing financial restrictions on those tied to the economy of the war’s aggressor. This is really about hurting a football team and their supporters because in the social media era it is always You, the victim, that They, the establishment, have it in for.
It is important to stress that only some Chelsea fans are behaving like spoiled children. And it is not hard to hold a degree of sympathy for the supporters who are unable to buy tickets. Some feel ashamed and they are right to be concerned for their club’s future and the intentions of a new owner. Others have reacted in a dignified way and it is reassuring to see at least one group attempt to raise money for the ordinary matchday workers affected by restrictions.
No one serious wants to see a 117-year-old club, the reigning European champions, destroyed. Opposition fans may whip up such sentiments but the reality is the government has already provided leeway by simply providing a special licence to operate that has already been loosened. They did not have to but for obvious reasons it is in the government’s interest to keep Chelsea alive. The fans of other clubs that have gone to the wall in recent years may justifiably look on and think “why not us?”
Inside the ground it felt more than a little subdued. A flag with Abramovich’s name remained in one corner, despite the request of at least one fan group to have it taken down, but it was not until the 65th minute that the disqualified owner’s name was sung in real numbers and even then it was quickly drowned out.
On the opposite side a couple of Saudi flags were waved feverishly throughout from a travelling support that pathetically tried its best to goad their hosts into a reaction. When a chant about a “war offender” gained little reaction, they went down the comedic route by singing “Mike Ashley, he’s coming from you.” That at least brought a laugh amid the darkness.
Beyond the songs, to see the flag of a country that yesterday executed 81 men for a number of offences including “deviant views” while waging war on a neighbouring country in which thousands of innocent children have been murdered is indefensible.
Of course it should be pointed out that in the eyes of the Premier League and supporters willing to swallow it whole in exchange for a potential chance of success far down the line, Newcastle United is not owned by the Saudi state itself. The Saudi Public Investment Fund is a separate entity. Its chairman Mohammad Bin Salman happens to be the country’s crown prince and deputy prime minister by coincidence.
At this stage it is also worth pointing out that Abramovich has always vehemently denied any association with Vladimir Putin. “He’s not involved in politics,” a Chelsea spokesman said a fortnight ago, 36 hours before a spokeswoman claimed that the 55-year-old was helping to broker peace talks between a democratic country that has been invaded on the orders of a man the UK government has now said Chelsea’s owner has had a relationship with for decades.
It was hard to escape the sight from the directors’ box of Bruce Buck, the Chelsea chairman whose silence has been deafening throughout, sharinga warm exchange with Mehrdad Ghodoussi, the Newcastle director, in the lead up to kick off after it was left to the club’s technical adviser Petr Cech to give an interview to Sky Sports because there is a wide acceptance that making head coach Thomas Tuchel front up over and over is unfair.
“We have a lot of questions but not many answers,” Cech said. “We are determined to concentrate on things we can control, which is working with people, supporting each other, come to training and focus on the games. The teams have the support around to do it.”
There was enough support and energy for Chelsea to strengthen their grip on third place in the table and yet it was difficult to focus on the game when some of those aforementioned questions are around not just the future of the reigning European champions, but football’s place in society and whether some people really need to celebrate those who bankroll their teams when unequivocal evidence points to trouble.