The implications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on football

The implications of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on football

Vladimir Putin is already a powerful man, but as he purposefully shook hands with his Brazilian counterpart Dilma Rousseff in the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on 13 July 2014, he formally gained perhaps the most powerful tool of all: the World Cup.

Cynics might draw comparisons between how the two entities are governed, but the truth is that it’s a marriage of convenience between FIFA and Russia. With the recent turmoil surrounding the disputed annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the emergence of three football clubs from the area in the Russian league system is threatening to bring about a messy divorce that no amount of counselling can save.

Cynics might draw comparisons between how the two entities are governed, but the truth is that it’s a marriage of convenience between FIFA and Russia. With the recent turmoil surrounding the disputed annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the emergence of three football clubs from the area in the Russian league system is threatening to bring about a messy divorce that no amount of counselling can save.

World leaders have been using sport – football above all else – to promote their own interests for decades, something Vladimir Putin is acutely aware of. From the Argentine Junta hosting the victorious 1978 World Cup to Nelson Mandela promoting racial harmony in his Rainbow Nation with the Rugby Union World Cup in 1995, sport has become inextricably entwined with rulers wanting to show themselves in a positive light.

Russia is currently enjoying a golden era of sport; in the last two years alone it has hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Rugby Sevens World Cup, the World Athletics Championships, the summer and winter editions of the Biathlon World Championships, the Judo World Championships, the summer Universiade (university Olympics) amongst others, and is set to host the Russian Grand Prix, the winter Universiade, and of course, the football World Cup in the next two years. None of this is an accident. It is a carefully choreographed period of global PR.

Niccolo Machiaveli wrote that real power came from the image of power, but after the Football Federation of Ukraine President Anatoliy Konkov persuaded FIFA to intervene as TSK Simferopol, SKChF Sevastopol and Zhemchuzhina Yalta began participating in Russian league and cup matches, no amount of spin could cover up the political implications. There is only so much a World Cup can do. Russian Sports Minister Vitaliy Mutko has claimed the move to integrate these teams into the Russian league system has no political motive, but the lingering impression is murkier than that.

FIFA’s statutes say any excessive direct government influence or involvement in a country’s football association will result in an investigation and possible suspension from all football activities. So how do they approach what is clearly a delicate issue of the three Crimean football clubs that have joined the Russian Second Division? On the one hand, it could be seen as a crafty move by Mutko to strike a blow on behalf of the Russian government in claiming control of the region; he is in a position where he can legitimately wash his hands of the full political implications. From the outside at least, it has the hallmarks of a thinly-veiled but well-orchestrated demonstration of power, a classic trademark of Putin: “Here’s what I can do, try and stop me”.

On the other hand, those clubs would potentially be left in limbo if they didn’t enter the Russian system. They have all been forced to change their names, all players without Russian passports have been replaced as the Ukranian FA would be unlikely to release their registration, and the clubs have even been given new addresses with Russian postal codes, effectively becoming new entities.

SKChF Sevastopol are rock bottom of their league with four losses from four matches, and their fans have recently sent an open letter to Putin asking for financial support. Zhemchuzhina Yalta are in even bigger trouble – they have only been able to complete two of their league fixtures so far, and face the very real prospect of ceasing to exist if they fail to find the funds to support themselves. They were denied a license to operate in the Ukranian league system three seasons ago and were forced to play in the amateur leagues until they cleared their debts. It is likely that they will be supported in some way, as it would be a hollow moral victory for Ukranian sports fans if they folded in their Russian guises, and this is something that neither Putin nor Mutko would appreciate.

Like it or not, legitimately or not, Crimea has carried out a referendum on independence and has been formally absorbed into the Russian Federation by a disputed treaty signed between Putin and Sergey Aksyonov, the de facto leader of Crimea, making it impossible for them to continue in the Ukranian league system. It is not interference in the running of the Russian Football Union (RFS); if anything, Russia will claim that the inclusion of the Crimean clubs, two of whom previously competed in the Ukranian top flight, has nothing to do with the government, and is simply following a logical conclusion to the change in status of the region.

The problem comes from the accusations of illegitimacy of Russia’s claim to Crimea. Nikita Khrushchev gave the region to Ukraine in 1954 in what was seen as an attempt to gain support in his bid to become leader of the Soviet Union from the first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Oleksiy Kyrychenko. By then, however, the Tatar population that had also inhabited the region for centuries had been forcibly displaced by Josef Stalin and sent to other areas of the USSR, in particular central Asia, leaving approximately 75 percent of the remaining population with Russian citizenship.

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Vitaly Mutko

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Czech president Milos Zeman has called upon the EU to accept that Crimea is part of Russia, having called Khrushchev’s actions “stupid”, while former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner labelled the condemnation of Russia’s actions by the west as double standards. “The UN charter stipulates the right of people to self-determination,” she said, “which means that this rule should be applied to all countries without exception,” referring to the UN not questioning the validity of last year’s referendum in the Falkland Islands over retaining British sovereignty.

How far should FIFA or UEFA become embroiled in the political aspect of this debacle? Unfortunately, doing nothing is not an option for them after Konkov’s direct plea for action, but making a decision equates to choosing sides, however neutral they will claim to be. In light of the groundswell of opposition to the running of the Qatar World Cup in 2022, it will be extremely uncomfortable for FIFA to strip Russia of the right to host the 2018 edition, and will set a dangerous precedent of involving matters far beyond football in decisions such as these. If the accusations of human rights violations regarding the construction workers in Qatar have foundation, it would be shocking if FIFA allowed the tiny Arab nation to retain their right to host but to deny Russia.

The truth is that FIFA has become too powerful and influential to simply stand by as only the recognised politicians hash out disputes such as these. UEFA’s official statement at the end of August was revealing: “In light of the complex and difficult factual and political considerations, and until an agreed solution can be found with regard to the situation in Crimea, the UEFA Emergency Panel has today decided that any football matches played by Crimean clubs organised under the auspices of the Russian Football Union will not be recognised by UEFA until further notice.”

‘Until an agreed solution can be found.’ Using the passive voice to avoid laying the responsibility on a specific body is an indirect way of hoping that they will not have become any more involved in political matters. It would be ideal for UEFA, and by extension for FIFA, if the furore over Crimea could be resolved through discussion and negotiation between Kiev and Moscow, but in such a ‘complex and difficult’ situation this is a process that could take months, or even years, and that is if there is the will on both sides to enter such talks. Interestingly, UEFA’s decision to not recognise the results of the three clubs was welcomed as “clear headed” by none other than the Director of Football at one of the three, FC SKChF Sivastopol, Evgeniy Repenkov.

However, FIFA Director of Member Associations and Development Thierry Regenass acknowledges that there is a certain obligation from his organisation to not stand by passively and simply watch as events unfold. “FIFA is a strong organisation,” he said, “not only in its football realm but also in the political, socio-economic world, and we can and should use this strength to help our members.” When the relentless inertia of world football’s governing body’s corporate drive results in eye-watering contracts with some of the planet’s most powerful conglomerates, the politics of business and image becomes inescapable.

But where does this leave FIFA’s relationship with its next partners as hosts for the jewel in its extravagant crown? The stronger the opposition to Russia’s actions, the stronger the possibility of key sponsors pulling out of the multi-million dollar deals that keep the coffers in Zürich overflowing. Image is everything in a world where ‘core brand values’ rule. When Tiger Woods’ marital indiscretions came to light, he was dropped by Accenture, AT&T and Gatorade. His $50 million contract with Nike, however, remained intact. Money still talks. It is an incredibly fine balance for companies to prioritise between taking the moral high ground, and maintaining the all-important exclusivity that World Cup sponsorship brings.

Putin is a smart man, and he has overseen a vital development of close relationships between FIFA and Russia. Gazprom became a top level FIFA sponsor last year, paying an estimated $100 million dollars for a four-year partnership, which is certain to be extended to include the 2018 World Cup itself. Then there is Mutko’s position as a FIFA executive committee member which, while seemingly in direct conflict with FIFA’s own statutes to remain apolitical, strengthens the network that binds country and organisation together.

As Brendan Greeley of Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out, this canny approach lead to a successful bid to host the World Cup, in sharp contrast to England’s comparatively short-sighted lobbying trip to Geneva involving David Cameron, Prince William and David Beckham. Not who you are, but who you know.

After this lengthy courtship, FIFA and Russia will get what they want from each other, so in one sense this is a successful arrangement. Common consensus has it that the modern game is a business, and with Russian roubles filling FIFA’s pockets while the World Cup brings the most global of stages to Russia, both sides have gained valuable assets.

But football is not just a business anymore, not on an international level – through the sheer scale of its appeal, FIFA cannot completely sidestep political issues such as Crimea and hope it will go away. UEFA have chosen to stand back from interfering in the politics of the situation, and perhaps this is how FIFA can maintain their dignity. In an official statement in July, they said: “FIFA is convinced that … we can achieve positive change in the world, but football cannot be seen as a solution for all issues, particularly those related to world politics. We have seen that the FIFA World Cup can be a force for good and FIFA believes this will be the case for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

For once, doing less is more, which will suit FIFA just fine.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint

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