Separation. Much easier said than done. And not just for Amanda Staveley as she tries to interpret the paper-thin distinction between PIF and the Saudi state as an ocean of clear blue water. But also for us as fans, trying to maintain a separation between our own ethical responsibilities and our simple desire to support our team.

Whether we acknowledge it explicitly or not, this is a question for all of us. For many it’s easily answered – success on the pitch is all that matters. There are others at the opposite extreme, entirely unable to reconcile supporting a football team with the moral compromises that now entails. But many more of us inhabit some awkward middle ground, trying to maintain a fraught and fluctuating separation between two important realms of our everyday lives.

For those of us in that position, the last week has been a difficult one. First, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a stark reminder of atrocities elsewhere, not granted the same 24-hour media glare. Second, the conflict has shone an unforgiving but welcome light on the bloodstained connection between football and the money that sustains it. Finally, and inevitably, those twin threads wrapped themselves in a Gordian knot around Amanda Staveley as she made her public appearance at the Financial Times business of football summit last Friday.

Before we come to that final intractable problem, it’s worth dealing with two important fallacies.

The first is to deny the moral equivalence between Ukraine and Yemen. While the former is presented as an existential threat not only to the principle of national sovereignty but also to Western civilisation sui generis, the latter is dismissed as a targeted intervention in a civil war against terrorist factions. Of course, the specific conditions of every conflict are different, but they all share a simple essential reality: they end the lives of human beings, individuals of equal value, no matter their home country or the colour of their skin. And in the case of Yemen, there is plenty of independently verified evidence of indiscriminate killing of civilians wrought by Saudi armed forces. That this is wrong really should not need to be pointed out.

The second is that the long-standing strategic partnership between the UK and Saudi somehow justifies or protects the relationship between our club and Saudi money. Even leaving aside the moral arguments, those who advocate success at all costs should have concerns about the speed with which both geopolitical and domestic opinion has moved against Russia. Even before Abramovich was sanctioned, his continued ownership of Chelsea had become untenable; no government intervention was needed to persuade him to sell. Most importantly of all, Abramovich enjoys far greater “separation” from Putin than PIF does from the Saudi regime. The Chair of PIF, let us not forget, is Muhammad bin Salman himself.

As such, while the situation of Saudi money may seem very different to that of Russia, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to conceive of a further unanticipated shift in apparent geopolitical certainties. Or, who knows, perhaps even a change in government and a move towards an ethical foreign policy (remember that?). In either case, our current financial foundations would be exposed as pillars of clay. It is in no-one’s interest to turn a blind eye to these issues and in everyone’s interest to put the club on a sustainable financial footing as soon as possible. Here, morality and self-interest coincide.

In this context, it was inevitable that our owners would be drawn into this week’s events and that their answers would be found wanting. Asked about Abramovich’s predicament at Chelsea, Staveley expressed sympathy, suggesting it was “really sad” and “not fair” that he would have his club taken away because of “a relationship he has with someone”. Even if some media outlets declined to quote her next qualifying sentence that you have to be held to account for your relationships, this was not a good look. When John Terry is the public figure closest to your position, you can be sure you’re on the wrong side of the debate.

And what about our own relationships as a club? How are we to be held to account for those? Tellingly, our interim co-CEO could only express her unfailing confidence that Saudi would do nothing equivalent to Russia and that the clear distinction between PIF and the state would offer us protection.

What else could Staveley say? After all, whether her position was based on a certain tactical naivety or the ingrained worldview of someone who has spent a lifetime working in the Gulf, it’s difficult to imagine any other response that would not have broken her, and our, Faustian pact with despotic oil money. And yet, we need not simply wring our hands and cede all agency. There are other possible paths.

The first is one already being pursued, namely an endeavour that reasserts the club’s credentials as a force for good in the local community. Imagine a club that is one of the major employers in the region and a beacon for good employment practice, not just the bare minimum of the living wage but pay and conditions across the board that establish new norms. In a world in thrall to rapacious capitalism, the club could reposition itself as a benevolent philanthropic employer, a latter day re-invention of the ethos advocated by Cadbury or Rowntree in the 19th century. Or to draw a more apt and local comparator, a socially responsible version of Lord Armstrong’s munitions factory. We might be cynical about that trade-off, but investment in the local area has the very real capacity to improve and extend lives.

The second is to find ways to turn the soft power of sport back on the Saudi state. Underlying their investment is an assumption that football wields power on the global stage, in this case to mitigate human rights transgressions. But that power cuts both ways. I don’t imagine it would be straightforward, of course, but there must be ways for Staveley and Ghodoussi to influence from within, to demonstrate that wielding that power globally also means meeting certain shared values. Their voices must become stronger. Perhaps sportswashing might instead become an opportunity to air some dirty laundry.

If these are ways that the club might navigate its invidious position, then what about us? What are we to do in a position largely outside of our control?

I can’t speak for others, only myself. My own approach might best be described as a position of knowing hypocrisy. As unsatisfactory as that sounds, it is at least an acknowledgement of the contradictions which we cannot escape for as long as our club is financed by the Saudi state. It also entails a certain attitude as a fan: humility not arrogance as and when success comes knocking; an acceptance of the right of others to raise awkward questions; an appreciation of incremental hard won progress over fantasy football shortcuts; an awareness that the very large glass house we currently inhabit makes the throwing of stones in other directions distinctly inadvisable.

For me, football has always been a different sphere, set apart from other aspects of our lives. If you’ll forgive the brief detour into cultural theory, it is perhaps best understood as what Michel Foucault terms a heterotopia, literally an “other space” that holds a mirror up to society while operating by its own particular rules of behaviour. More specifically, it is a space of illusion, like Bakhtin’s carnival where the rules of ordinary life are temporarily suspended and the profane extremes of human behaviour indulged.

In this sense, separation has always been part of the deal, a separation of the self that involves suspending the normal rules of social practice for 90 minutes every Saturday. But we must also understand that this separation is not without consequences for wider society, nor does it come without social costs.

Negotiating our own particular version of that separation and weighing those costs is the challenge that faces each of us, even if we choose to deny it.

Matthew Philpotts @mjp19731