Subscribers to broadcaster iQiyi expecting live Premier League action in mainland China this weekend will be mystified. Mass Covid breakout? Impromptu international break? Wildcat referee strike masterminded by noted Professional Game Match Officials Limited militant vinyl-enthusiast Jon Moss? How else to explain a complete blackout of all Premier League action?
Those who have decided to block the feed, one can only assume, are not prepared to allow any discussion with viewers as to the reasons why. Many will not know that it is because of the Premier League’s show of solidarity with Ukraine, unprecedented in the history of a stoically apolitical organisation, for an invasion undertaken by an aggressor whom China refuses to condemn. No Bundesliga action to be broadcast either, according to sources, although, remarkably, Serie A was due to be waved through.
Either way, they are a Premier League matchday down in China, so the world’s most populous nation will just have to keep updating teletext for the scores. Uncharted territory for the Premier League, ordinarily not in the business of making life difficult for broadcast partners who pay the bills, but these are exceptional times. The earnest football-only chat of the world feed, the usual lame disclaimers of neutrality – none of that applies now. All tools must be at the disposal of those trying to isolate Russia, whether that is the hard edge of financial sanctions or the soft power of football.
For English football’s great global export you can sense what is coming next. Already humming in the pipeline is the addition of a human rights element to the owners and directors’ test (OADT) which assesses the suitability of those who would seek to own clubs as well as those who run them.
Chances of success? The horse has not simply bolted, but the Var monitors have captured it easing down to a gentle canter and nosing its way in the VIP retirement paddock alongside those progeny of the Rock of Gibraltar who were not quick enough to make the cut. The Saudis are in at Newcastle and the Russian owner of Chelsea is still permitted to sell the club in spite of current events.
There may yet be another Russian owner in the Premier League next season if Bournemouth get their act together, albeit one with a British passport. As for the Chinese, they own Wolverhampton Wanderers and a significant stake of Manchester City.
Hard to impose a new order on entry-level candidates given the ownership status quo. Gaining a consensus among the clubs would be one thing but who makes the decision is quite another, and even the most vociferous supporters of the independent regulator would have to admit that this job might not be as good as it sounds. No surprise then that Premier League chief executive Richard Masters has said that there would be a role for an independent body to play in that respect. It would be unreasonable to lay at the door of the current Premier League board.
The Premier League has tried to formulate something around human rights. There has been one meeting with Amnesty International on the subject in December at the request of the league. The current OADT is simply a question of legal obligations – a new owner or investor either passes or they do not, what is being proposed is much more complex. Even the author of the recent government fan-led review into football governance, Tracey Crouch MP, has been notably noncommittal on whether she would, for instance, support legislation that would have blocked the Saudi Public Investment Fund-led consortium takeover of Newcastle.
The longer this goes on, the more one suspects that this government is struggling to summon the spirit for difficult and meaningful legislation that would presumably affect foreign investment across all sectors, not just football. The Premier League executive would require the support of the current owners to agree to new regulations themselves that will influence who can and cannot buy a club, and they are hopelessly compromised.
There will be, for instance, no great rush to criticize China for refusing to broadcast the sincere and heartfelt solidarity with Ukraine that so many players and fans will support this weekend. For too many clubs China is simply too delicate a political issue, with its many sponsorships, partnerships and investments. Watching Oleksandr Zinchenko’s BBC interview on the utter despair Manchester City’s Ukrainian feels for his nation was to understand the life-changing impact of this invasion on the Ukraine diaspora. Zinchenko will also know that it took a second United Nations vote for the United Arab Emirates, the home nation of his club’s owners, to condemn Russia.
The geopolitical alliances and uneasy compromises have in part been swept away this past week. Roman Abramovich, the original billionaire of 21st century English football, is leaving the room. With him also goes the Aeroflot deal at Manchester United as well as Everton’s Alisher Usmanov-backed endorsements and the league’s Russian broadcast contract with the Sberbank-backed Rambler Media. When the blood was spilled and the cities shelled in Ukraine, it was enough to bring about a change that felt big in English football. Then within a few days the action of China made the Premier League feel small again.
It is only three years since Mesut Ozil protested against the persecution of the Uyghurs in China and found himself isolated even by his own club Arsenal, who immediately distanced themselves. It was a consequence of that brave decision that Ozil has become a non-person in China, his name redacted from the state-controlled internet, his achievements in the game expunged.
Perhaps some new Chinese fans this weekend watching the repeats of old games to fill the broadcast gap will wonder at the identity of that elegant Arsenal No 10 of yore.
That China blackout is, sadly, the true measure of what the Premier League is up against if it wants to stand for freedom and human rights. By comparison, the side-lining of its Russian owners and interests has been notably straightforward.