Premier League

Mass Execution vs War Crimes; or Newcastle vs Chelsea?

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At 13:20 GMT the Saudi Arabian government released a 217 word statement announcing the execution of 81 people, the largest in its modern recorded history. There was no list of the individuals killed, no details about them except that they were men, nothing about where the executions took place or the method. The list of crimes these people were conivted of were undoubtebly horrific; rape, murder, kidnapping, but not single a detail of any case was forthcoming. Even for Saudi Arabia, a country that beheaded 37 men in a single day, this is an unprecedented act of judicial barbarism. 

The Ukranian city of Mariupol has seen relentless 24 hour shelling for the last three weeks of the Russian invasion. The International Red Cross has declared the city a humanitarian catastrophe with the human suffering ‘simply immense’, as residents go without food and water, sheltering for their lives in underground bunkers with no heating. On March 13th, we heard the horrific story of a maternity hospital bombed by Putin’s merciless war machine, as a pregnant woman screamed ‘Kill me now!’ when she slowly realised her unborn child was dead. The mother died 30 minutes later.

Why such descriptions of human carnage and tragedy in an article about what was a rather drab Sunday afternoon football match? Well, this is what modern football has become, two clubs, Chelsea and Newcastle, with history and tradition and communal stories going back over a century, are now indelibly linked to these events. 

Newcastle are owned by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia and Chelsea by Roman Abramovich, sanctioned this week by the UK government for his ‘close relationship for decades’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chelsea can now only operate under a strict licence from the government, unable to sell tickets, memorabilia or effectively garner any profit from football related activities. 

Football has fallen so far, over so many years, it will be the quest of historians for decades to understand how such immorality could exist alongside the so-called ‘beautiful game’. But this is where we are in 2022, a former Second Division defender having to answer questions about the human rights record of a country who see beheading people as moral justice. 

Whether Eddie Howe should be asked these questions is a debate for another day; but Sunday’s game between Newcastle and Chelsea was a dark night in the deepest midwinter for football’s soul. Newcastle fans, holding aloft a Saudi Arabia flag 24 hours after the largest mass execution in their history, should make the whole of football shudder with incredulous revulsion. 

Yet, this has been a long time coming, football has seen sports washing cleaning the dirty money for decades. Gazprom sponsoring the Champions League, countries with questionable human rights records naming stadiums and owning historic clubs, exploitative betting companies funding football’s excesses, the seedy corruption at every level of the game. But we still tuned in our hundreds of millions, overtaken by the extraordinary, beautiful drama that is modern football. 

This is decades in the making but brought into the stark light of Sunday’s game. Perhaps it is not fair to single out Chelsea and Newcastle, when there is Man City and PSG and a plethora of others. But this feels different; a football club only allowed to operate because of the compassion of Nadine fucking Dorries because their owner has a direct, intimate connection (a connection which Abramovich has always denied) to a dictator ordering the murder of innocent pregnant women. 

Following the Heysel disaster in 1985, French newspaper Le Monde ran their infamous headline ‘If this is Football, Let it Die.’ Maybe something similar needs to be said now as Newcastle’s relegation escape is soundtracked by the swift fall of a guillotine and Chelsea’s Champions Leagues by an air raid siren. 

This is football and people die for it.

Main image credits: Embed from Getty Images

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