Roman Abramovich under sanctions! Chelsea up for sale! Scandal engulfs Everton FC as a key donor Alisher Usmanov is added to the UK government’s list of ‘named Oligarchs’. The Economic War has opened a new front on the pitch. Football is pulled into the Russian invasion of Ukraine just as Western corporations and the oil and gas docks of Tranmere and Grain before them.
The public outcry over the role of Russian billionaires in the British economy and politics howls from the front pages. There’s a clear public delight in seeing the super-rich brought down. The stories of yachts being impounded brightens our days. And ‘Anarchist Squatters’ in Belgravia are feted as liberators in the Tabloids. The world turned upside down!
The forced sale of Chelsea FC and the disgracing of Usmanov at Everton, might seem like collateral damage in the conflict, as though football has nothing to do with the forces that lie behind the shelling of Kyiv and Kharkiv. As Amanda Staveley, who facilitated the purchase of Newcastle FC said: “This world is never not going to have problems. It’s really hard, and I’m really sad today that someone is going to have a football club taken away because of a relationship he may have with someone.”
However, we cannot help but understand how oil and gas play a key role in this brutal battle and that means that football too is implicated, for football and fossil fuels are intimately entwined.
The profits from the oil and gas industry have underpinned the revenues of the Russian state and have underpinned the wealth of Russia’s oligarch elite. And that oligarch elite has underpinned the financing of football in the UK and beyond. There is a direct line of roubles and dollars and sterling, passing through the hands of Abramovich and Usmanov, that links to funding of Chelsea and Everton to the oil wells of Sibneft (1) and the gas pipelines of Gazprom.(2)
This is not unique. The twist in the Economic War, in which the governments of the West turn on the Oligarchs of Russia, only serves to reveal the long marriage of oil and football since the early 1930s.
This November the World Cup is to be hosted by Qatar. The richest state per-capita on Earth as a result of it accounting for 13% of global gas reserves. Qatar is the largest liquid Natural Gas (LNG) exporter in the world. The Qatar Petroleum company owns the majority of the South Hook Terminal LNG on Milford Haven in Wales feeding gas into the UK grid. South Hook is the largest LNG plant in Europe and the UK’s apparent ‘fall back’ as the embargo on LNG from Russia is imposed.
This year’s World Cup will be held near the gas and oil fields of a Gulf State. Fittingly, football was introduced to Qatar by British riggers working for the Anglo Persian Oil Company. This corporation, now known as BP, obtained the concession to drill for oil in Qatar in 1935, whilst the state was a British Protectorate, effectively part of the Empire. In 1951, Qatar’s first competitive football tournament (the Ezz Eddin Tournament) was organised by Qatar Petroleum Company, two years after the country began to export oil to the UK.
Fossil fuels and football became evermore entwined as the consumption of oil and natural gas has grown rapidly in the last 70 years. For example, Inter Milan’s most successful period as a club was in the 1950’s, when they were bought and invested into by the oil magnate Angelo Moratti, who passed ownership down to his son. It was in the family until 2016, when it was sold to a privately owned Chinese company – Suning Holdings Group.
We can see football and oil are threaded together by a set of stands.
Firstly through direct ownership of clubs. Not only Chelsea FC, but also Man City, Newcastle, Bournemouth are all owned by the investment companies of oil states or businessmen that made their money in oil. The same goes in other countries. For example in France, Paris St Germain and Nice are owned by oil. Whilst it is no surprise that the biggest Russian football team, Zenit St. Petersburg, is owned 100% by Gazprom.
Secondly, through oil states hosting major international tournaments. Qatar’s World Cup 2022 follows Russia’s World Cup in 2018. Whilst Guinea hosted the Africa Cup of Nations in 2015 at a time when 81% of Guinea’s state expenditure was funded by hydrocarbon revenues.
Then there is the third strand, where oil money infiltrates the formal structures of the management of the game. The most obvious example being President of Fifa, Gianni Infantino’s, close relationship to Vladimir Putin. Infantino infamously received the Order of Friendship from his friend in 2019, a year after proudly proclaiming at the 2018 World Cup that Fifa and Putin’s Russia were ‘a team’, who together were forging what he called ‘a new image of Russia’.
And finally through the sponsorship deals between oil companies, major clubs and tournaments. Gazprom sponsored the Champions League, the World Cup, and Euro 2021. Total has sponsored the African Cup of Nations since 2016.
But the sponsorship of football by fossil fuels extends beyond oil companies to include the banks that finance oil projects and thereby drive forward climate chaos, cutting sponsorship deals. These include Barclays Bank sponsoring the Premier League and Standard Chartered sponsoring Liverpool FC.
The Economic War has swung the spotlight onto the oil plutocrats who own British clubs, and in eight months time the World Cup will open in an oil state. What is to be done? How can football break its link with the finances that fuel the machine at war in the Ukraine and the machine that drives climate chaos? After all, the two are one and the same.
The last two decades have seen a powerful campaign to end the sponsorship of arts and science institutions by oil and gas companies, as we explore in Crude Britannia. Starting with the group Art Not Oil protesting outside the BP sponsored National Portrait Gallery in 2002, through the rebellious performances of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, Liberate Tate and BP or not to BP?, to the sustained brilliance of Culture Unstained – and supported by a host of other groups such as Platform, Greenpeace, UKSCN and XR – this campaign has had a run of victories. As an image produced by BP or not to BP? Illustrates, the last decade has seen oil sponsorship links broken at Tate, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and a number of other institutions.
This shows what can be done, now is the hour for the newly launched Kick Fossil Fuels Out of Football to take the field and rid the beautiful game of its sticky centre. In so doing, can football fans possess the focal point of their passion again? In the coming weeks, Platform’s Kick Fossil Fuels Out of Football campaign will start in Liverpool, ora workshops for fans to run a local campaign from. We’ll hear more from those fans in coming months, as they start their journey.
With Abramovich forced out ofChelsea, Gazprom knocked out of the Champions League, and the World Cup being hosted in an oil state, now is the time for fans across the World to line up together and kick fossil fuels out of football, once and for all!
With many thanks to Rob Noyes and Terry Macalister.
1. Roman Abramovich, together with his then ally Boris Berezovsky, built much of his wealth through the corrupt acquisition of Russian state-owned oil company Sibneft in the mid 1990s.
2. From late 1990s to 20214, Alisher Usmanov was General Director of Gazprom Invest Holdings – investment subsidiary of Russian state-owned gas company.
For further reading see: https://worldat1c.org/fossil-fuels-and-football-44cd6c216d3