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Football must give fossils the boot


Wonker under a Creative Commons Licence

Football has greatly changed since the Premier League and the Champions League first came into being.

Every aspect of a club is now sponsored in some capacity. Manchester United has a beer sponsor (Singha) and even a ‘Sustainable Technology’ partner (Abengoa). Clubs are finding sponsorship money for anything they can and competitions such as the ‘Barclays Premier League’ are no better.

Russian fossil-fuel giant Gazprom is the ‘official partner’ of the UEFA Champions League, the most coveted club competition in world football, with a global audience of 4.2 billion. Such sponsorship often comes from companies with questionable objectives and even more questionable business practices. Gazprom is a prime example of this.

Campaigns to get universities and non-governmental organizations to shed their investments in fossil fuel companies have met with some success. University College London, for example, has been under intense pressure from students to divest from mining company BHP Billiton. In football, however, such issues are met with apathy. There is rarely any questioning about where the money is coming from.

Few bat an eye lid when the Gazprom logo comes on during the build-up to the Champions League. This is despite the fact that last year, 30 Greenpeace activists, who were protesting against oil drilling in the Arctic, were illegally detained for three months by Russian authorities acting on behalf of Gazprom. The protesters had tried to scale an offshore rig owned by the company.

Gazprom is the largest natural gas extractor in the world, as well as a major supplier of oil. Controversially, the company recently teamed up with Shell to begin extracting on the Arctic shelf.

The links between football and extractives tycoons is not new. Alisher Usmanov and Farhad Moshiri (who own 30 per cent of the London-based Arsenal football club), Roman Abramovich  who owns Chelsea football club, and Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan at Manchester City, all made their wealth through extractive industries.

There is zero scrutiny of sponsorship deals affecting clubs or of the origins of investors’ wealth. Nobody cares, as long as the big-name players are signed and the trophies follow.

Why on earth is UEFA associated so closely with organizations directly responsible for the destruction of the planet? The simple answer is money – but it should not be so simple.

Others have seen the light. Lego recently succumbed to pressure from Greenpeace and ended a multi-million dollar marketing deal with oil tycoon Shell.  Football clubs and the Champions League should follow suit, instead of allowing themselves to be used to clean up the image of extractive industries. If the Rockefeller heirs can divest from fossil fuels, then surely football can too.

Doing this might not instantly damage the profitability of the likes of Gazprom, but it will send an important message that football is a game which refuses to be linked to the destruction of our planet or to take part in whitewashing the image of fossil fuel corporations. Football fans should engage with these issues.

Pressure needs to be put on the Premier League to question the ways in which club owners have gained their wealth and stricter criteria should be applied when it comes to who can take over or buy shares in clubs.

Companies such as Gazprom should not be splashed across football shirts or Champions League hoardings. Football needs to send a message that their money is not wanted here.  

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