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How the oligarch owner of the U.K.'s Chelsea soccer club is fighting anti-Semitism

“Football is so powerful, and we can reach millions of people,” said César Azpilicueta, captain of Chelsea’s men’s team.

LONDON — After a year in which anti-Semitism made headlines in the United Kingdom, Chelsea, one of England’s leading soccer clubs, is stepping up its fight against the hatred.

The London-based Premier League club owned by the Russian Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich has spent the weeks leading up to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz by issuing two statements as part of its “Say No to Anti-Semitism” campaign.

Earlier this week, the club unveiled a mural which pays tribute to the memory of Julius Hirsch and Árpád Weisz, two Jewish soccer players who died at Auschwitz. The 40by-23-foot piece by British Israeli artist Solomon Souza, whose grandmother escaped the Nazis in 1939, will hang from the stadium until the close of the soccer season in May.

And on Friday, Chelsea announced it would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, saying it was the first sports team in the world to do so. The staff will be educated on the subject and the definition will appear in match-day programs.

The two gestures, close to International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place on Jan. 27, come as Jewish communities in the United States and Europe have been targeted with violence and abuse.

Artist Solomon Souza paints the Holocaust Commemorative Mural at Stamford Bridge on Jan. 15, 2020 in London, England.Chris Lee / Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Anti-Semitic slogans were daubed across shops and cafes in north London over Christmas and December saw a general election in which the opposition Labour Party was accused of failing to combat anti-Jewish rhetoric from some of its supporters. Last week, police arrested six Labour Party supporters for alleged anti-Semitism and prosecutors are now considering whether to charge them.

“We see on our screens a sharp rise of anti-Semitism all over the world, phenomena we haven’t seen in years,” Isaac Herzog, chairman of the Israeli nonprofit Jewish Agency, said upon the unveiling of the mural earlier this week.

“Desecrations of graveyards, desecrating synagogues, throwing stones at Jews, threatening schools, threatening kindergarten, going into terrorism, murdering Jews in synagogues when they pray,” Herzog added. “This is incomprehensible. In the modern world which wants to work towards a pursuit of a certain rules of human behavior and all of a sudden it erupts in the most disgusting way.”

While guests such as Herzog and members of London’s Jewish community gathered in London to view the mural, Abramovich remained absent. The 53-year-old, who made his fortune in the oil and gas industries in Russia, encountered visa trouble amid a downturn in relations between London and Moscow in the aftermath of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018.

Just two months earlier, Abramovich was included on a list, drawn up by the U.S. Department of Treasury, which included a number of Russian businessmen and politicians who had close ties to President Vladimir Putin and possible targets of future sanctions.

Though Abramovich’s appearances in the U.K. have become scarcer — he took Israeli citizenship in May 2018 and did not attend a single Chelsea home game last season or so far this season — he continues to campaign against anti-Semitism around the world.

Russian billionaire and owner of Chelsea FC, Roman Abramovich.Anthony Anex / AP file

His friendship with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft resulted in Chelsea playing a friendly game against the Major League Soccer team New England Revolution, which Kraft also owns, in Boston last May. It raised over $4 million for organizations fighting anti-Semitism and discrimination. Abramovich also donated $5 million last year to Kraft’s new venture, the Foundation for Social Media Messaging Against Anti-Semitism.

Chelsea has had its own struggles in combating anti-Semitism from some of its supporters during the 1970s and the 1980s, continuing to the present day. Last year the club was charged by the Union of European Football Associations, European football’s governing body, after what Chelsea itself described as anti-Semitic chanting at a game in Hungary.

Some fans of Tottenham Hotspur, a rival team based in north London, despite pleas from Jewish groups refer to themselves as “Yids” or “Yiddos” — a derogatory term referring to Jewish people. The phrase is repeated in some chants and songs from Chelsea fans.

UEFA dropped the charge but a Chelsea spokesman at the time condemned the chant and said “anti-Semitism and any other kind of race-related or religious hatred is abhorrent to this club and the overwhelming majority of our fans.”

Artist Solomon Souza paints the Holocaust Commemorative Mural at Stamford Bridge on Jan. 15, 2020 in London, England.Chris Lee / Chelsea FC via Getty Images

In July, the club banned six fans from attending matches, one for life, for hurling racist abuse at Manchester City and England star Raheem Sterling, who is black.

But Chelsea and England are hardly alone in facing problems of racism in European football.

At the mural’s unveiling, César Azpilicueta, captain of Chelsea’s men’s team, said he believes soccer can help educate supporters on the dangers of anti-Semitism and racism.

“Football is so powerful, and we can reach millions of people,” he said.

“Fans are a massive part of our club, of football, and they are a massive example for everybody, as well. You see in the stands, kids they hear and see people, and I think it’s a good example if we spread the message not only on the pitch but by our fans, step by step.”