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Chelsea FC caught in a political storm that will rage on

When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson entered the House of Parliament on Tuesday [02/23] it didn’t look like he expected to be discussing Chelsea FC

So surprised was he that, when he was asked about whether Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich would be punished as part of a raft of measures taken by the UK against Russia over its military incursion into Ukraine, Johnson suggested the billionaire was “already facing sanctions.”

This was not accurate and just a couple of hours later his office had to issue a correction.

“The prime minister misspoke,” an official spokesman explained, adding that the Parliamentary record would be amended to reflect this.

His abrupt exit from the chamber shortly after this blunder, as Labour MP Chris Bryant was attempting to ask him a follow-up question, only added to the sense of discomfort.

The Prime Minister is far from alone in feeling a bit flustered by the idea of action against Russian Oligarch interests in the UK in the response to the situation in Ukraine. Britain, like many countries around the world, has not considered the consequences foreign ownership of its prized assets might have, until now.

Nevertheless, they are one of the countries pushing European soccer’s governing body UEFA to punish Russia by taking from it one of the crown jewels in the soccer calendar, the Champions League Final, away from the nation.

“I have serious concerns about the sporting events due to be held in Russia, such as the Champions League Final, and will discuss with the relevant governing bodies,” tweeted UK secretary of state for culture, media and sport Nadine Dorries.

“We won’t allow President Putin to exploit events on the world stage to legitimize his illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

Foreign secretary, Liz Truss, went one step further suggesting on radio station LBC that, were the game to remain at the current venue, British sides should refuse to play.

"If I were on an English team, I would boycott it.” she said: "I would personally not want to be playing in a [soccer] match in St Petersburg given what the Putin regime is doing.”

The previous final was of course between two English sides, Manchester City, owned by an Abu Dhabi royal, and Chelsea, who belong to Roman Abramovich. Any hypothetical efforts Truss might make to pull rank or pressure those clubs into a boycott were the tie to be repeated, would provide a fascinating insight into where the power truly lies in the English game.

Either way, reports have emerged that UEFA is indeed considering moving the game.

But, as anyone with even the slightest bit of knowledge of the association’s commercial partners will know, there is another factor to be considered.

Russian state energy company Gazprom is one of UEFA’s long-term sponsors, the relationship began in 2012 and just last year new terms were agreed to extend the pair’s relationship until 2024.

“Gazprom has proved over the years to be one of our most trusted partners,” said UEFA marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein, when the deal was announced, “it also has a long heritage in football and we’re are looking forward to working even closer together over the coming years.”

How UEFA handles the potential conversation about moving the Champions League final from the Gazprom Arena in May with one of its “most trusted partners” is anyone’s guess.

But it’s the type of issue which is unlikely to just disappear.

As I pointed out in the summer, when UEFA prevented Germany from illuminating the Allianz Arena in Munich with the LGBT+ rainbow because it was a “political” gesture despite the organization itself deeming the symbol “non-political,” the era of middle ground impartiality is gone.

Chelsea debate: What’s changed?

The questions in British parliament about Roman Abramovich, however, do mark a significant step-change.

In October, I spoke to Emlyon business school, professor of sport, Professor Simon Chadwick who questioned why there were much higher levels of scrutiny on Newcastle United’s Saudi Arabian takeover than there were on Chelsea’s owner.

“If you look at Abramovich and his relationship with [Vladimir] Putin and you think about all manner of things [that take place in Russia] from the clamp down on the LGBTQ community to the murder of dissidents, nobody ever calls that out,” he said. “Yet, somehow, we all have a moral position on the Gulf region.”

Well, now it appears that something does seem to be shifting and questions are being asked.

It feels sudden, but, like with most things, it’s probably been a gradual shift. The existential questions British soccer asked itself in the wake of the Newcastle United takeover were a result of many years of scrutiny of the purposes of Manchester City’s ownership by Sheik Mansour.

Questions about Chelsea and its owner come as a consequence of all of those conversations.

Or as Tromsø midfielder Ruben Yttergård Jenssen, whose team was the first to demand a boycott of the Qatar World Cup by the Norweigan national team, told me in March “You just have to start somewhere and draw a line.”

“I can see that sometimes it's a difficult dilemma,” he added, “but now we just have to start and hope that more and more follow.”