This feature is part of The Tsars of Football series

You have just turned on your television to watch your favourite team play in the Champions League. Before the match start, you are forced to sit through a number of boring commercials, and the last one before kick-off tells you “Gazprom – We light up the football”. Mixed with products you can buy at your nearest mall, Gazprom is the odd one out.

It is the world’s largest natural gas company, and although it has struggled financially in recent years – and contributed with a staggering eight percent to Russia’s total GDP in 2013 – it is not a product European consumers can go out and pick for themselves.

However, despite this it is almost impossible not to notice the involvement in football by the Russian gas giant. Not only are Gazprom sponsoring the Champions League, they are also the official energy sponsor of English powerhouse Chelsea, head sponsor of German side Schalke 04, Serbian side Red Star, and naturally Saint Petersburg based Zenit, who are both sponsored and owned by Gazprom. On top of this, Gazprom became an official FIFA partner in 2015, meaning they’ll join up with the biggest football organisation in the world ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

“Gazprom is not only the largest gas company in the world,” Gazprom CEO Aleksey Miller once said, “but also one of those most passionate.” But, what lies behind this so-called passion for football, and what does Gazprom get from their presence in the game, especially when European football fans don’t have the option of purchasing Gazprom products?

To answer those questions, one needs to take a closer look at exactly what Gazprom is.

The company was founded in 1989 when the Soviet Ministry of Gas Industry was transformed into a corporation, although the state kept all of the shares in the company. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Gazprom kept the monopoly of the gas resources located on Russian soil, and the company went through privatisation in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

After Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, he aimed to regain control over Russia’s oligarchs and major companies, and for Gazprom that meant that two of Putin’s allies from St. Petersburg, Aleksey Miller and Dmitry Medvedev, took over as CEO and Chairman of the Board. Since 2005, the Russian state has owned 51 percent of the shares, while Gazprom have held the exclusive rights to Russian natural gas exports.

Under Putin, Gazprom has played the role as a policy tool rather than a profit maximizing company seeking to create wealth for its shareholders. When Moldova, in 2013, held talks with the European Union about a trade deal, Russia threatened to cut off the small ex-Soviet republic from its gas supply.

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Read  |  A World of Ultras: Zenit Saint Petersburg

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However, the best example of Gazprom’s influence on the international scene came in Ukraine, as gas prices rose significantly after Kremlin-friendly president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, with the power being regularly switched off since then.

Gazprom’s football adventures started for real in December 2005, when the company bought a controlling stake in Zenit Saint Petersburg, whom they had been sponsoring since 1999, and took the first steps to developing the club into the European powerhouse we see today.

At that time, Zenit hadn’t won the league since 1984, and although they finished second in 2003, the Blue-White-Sky Blues were constantly falling short of their richer and more powerful rivals from Moscow, who, with the exception of one season, had won all the Russian championships. In fact, the population from the Venice of the North were convinced that a Muscovite conspiracy against them existed, which once made the club’s Czech head coach Vlastimil Petržela conclude, “that Zenit would never win the league”.

However, after the Gazprom takeover the realities changed swiftly. Petržela was replaced by Dick Advocaat halfway through the 2006 season, and Zenit were suddenly able to purchase top players, not only from Russia but from all of Europe. Players such as Torpedo Moscow’s Konstantin Zyryanov, Tom Tomsk’s Pavel Pogrebnyak, Rangers’ Fernando Ricksen, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Trabzonspor’s Fatih Tekke were added to the already talented Zenit squad, which consisted of homegrown talents such as Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Andrey Arshavin, Igor Denisov and Vyacheslav Malafeev.

The investments quickly paid off and in 2007 Zenit won their first Russian championship; they even received the trophy in Moscow after beating Saturn Ramenskoye in the final game of the season, which made the victory even sweeter. That was just the beginning.

A few months later, Zenit defeated Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup semi-final to qualify for the club’s first European final. After drawing 1-1 in Munich in the first leg, the Blue-White-Sky Blues started the second leg with a positive result, and kept it that way through a tactical master plan by Advocaat and his players. They were without some of their high-profile stars, but combined clever defending with lethal and quick counter-attacks to stun the stars from Bavaria.

In the final Zenit faced Rangers, and with Arshavin back in the starting line-up, the Russians pulled away with a 2-0 victory to become the second Russian club within the span of three years to win a European tournament.

The UEFA Cup victory came a year after Gazprom became the head-sponsor of Schalke 04 in a deal that was believed to be the second largest in German football, and earlier this year the parties extended the sponsorship deal that is now believed to be worth €150 million until 2022. It is no coincidence that Gazprom has chosen to sponsor one of Germany’s most popular football clubs. Germany is the biggest buyer of Russian natural gas, and the German demand for natural gas keeps growing.

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Read  |  Andrey Arshavin: a contradictory Russian talent

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However, while Gazprom looked set to conquer the world when the first deal was signed, the reality is quite different today. Around the time of Zenit’s UEFA Cup victory in the spring of 2008, Gazprom was one of the most valuable companies in the world, worth around $367 billion. Last year, the market capitalisation had plummeted to $51 billion, which by far was the biggest loss by any company in that period.

A big part of the reason for the loss has been Gazprom’s role as a political tool for the Russian government, which has meant that the company has been pushed to conducting both risky moves as well as saying no to lucrative opportunities and markets such as the Ukrainian one.

Despite the losses, Gazprom remains heavily invested in football, and in 2010 they became the main sponsor of Serbian side Red Star, while two years later becoming the official energy partner of Chelsea in England. Zenit, however, remains the cornerstone of the Gazprom football empire.

Since winning the UEFA Cup, the St. Petersburg side has gone through a transformation. From being a team with local stars such as Arshavin and Kerzhakov, the side now doesn’t boast a single St. Petersburg native among the regulars. Furthermore, the team has been strengthened with major stars like Axel Witsel and Hulk, who both arrived in the summer of 2012 and became the first world stars signed by the club.

While it should be pleasing for fans and players to receive significant arrivals such as Witsel and Hulk, the atmosphere was different in Zenit. “Why would foreigners earn three times more than the best players in the team?” Denisov asked Sport-Express after the arrival of the two. “If Hulk and Witsel were at the same level as Messi and Ronaldo it would be fine, but they are not. So why do we have this imbalance in wages then? It’s not about money, it’s about respect.”

Denisov was later demoted to the second team after issuing an ultimatum for a pay raise. He was, however, not the only one unhappy with the new signings and their exorbitant salaries. Kerzhakov was also reported to be unhappy, and he also spent a week in the second team in 2012 before being forgiven and reinstated.

And it wasn’t only amongst the players that unhappiness started to spring out. “We are not racists but we see the absence of black players at Zenit as an important tradition,” a manifesto published by Zenit’s largest ultra-group Landskrona in 2012 said. “We are against representatives of sexual minorities playing for Zenit. For us it is crucial that Zenit has retained its own identity, and not turned into an average European team, with a standard set of foreign players. We only want players from other brotherly Slav nations, such as Ukraine and Belarus as well as from the Baltic states and Scandinavia.

“We have the same mentality and historical and cultural background as these nations. Any other continents, except Europe, should not be a priority for Zenit. This does not mean that it is taboo, but flying to Latin America only makes sense if we honestly and professionally tried everything possible to find a player in the region, Russia and Europe.”

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Read  |  André Villas-Boas and the long con

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Zenit’s ultras have often demonstrated their far-right sympathies, and while the racism in the manifesto was painfully obvious, it also showed the standpoint of the fans who saw their local players slowly being replaced with highly-paid foreigners and Russians with little attachment to St. Petersburg. A good example of one of these was Russian international Artem Dzyuba, who arrived on a free transfer from arch-rivals Spartak Moscow last summer. Although a talented player, Dzyuba has faced an uphill battle to earn the love of the most hardcore fans, who saw how he pushed out local legend Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

Last summer, Kerzhakov and Arshavin were told that they were no longer a part of head coach André Villas-Boas’s plans for the first team, and while Arshavin left the club, Kerzhakov was demoted to the second team, eventually leaving the club on loan in January in pursuit of playing time. With them gone, the last of the local players left and with them the semblance of a simpler time.

While Zenit have become the powerhouse of Russian football, finishing outside the top two just three times since the Gazprom takeover, the nothern side has alienated its most loyal fans.

“For the most hardcore fans,” Vladislav Ryabov, a local football journalist told me, “we remember when Zenit consisted of players as Škrtel, Hubočan and a bunch of local talented guys, and it is difficult to accept the new reality. Many people loved that Zenit, simple and with a squad of unknown players who fought for the club, and not for the huge salaries we see today.”

While it’s easy to romanticise the past, it is safe to say that while the trophy cabinet in Zenit’s headquarters has been filled, the expected success off the field is still yet to happen. The average attendance at Petrovsky Stadium isn’t rising, and neither is the love from the fans.

“Gazprom bought Dzyuba, Kokorin and Zhirkov,” Ryabov says, “who all played for the clubs that are hated in Saint Petersburg, and now they changed their colours to play for us? That is difficult to accept.”

Despite compromising the values and ethical foundation of the club, the conquest of Europe that was expected in 2008 is yet to happen. Zenit’s best European result is the Round of 16 in the Champions League, and a quarter-final in the Europa League, and so it looks Gazprom will have to keep investing.

In the meantime, many fans will think back to a simpler time, where the football was perhaps starved of the same quality but the connection with the players on the field was both bigger and more meaningful.

By Toke Theilade. Follow @TokeTheilade