oDR: Opinion

Football has for too long been in Putin’s pocket. It’s time for reform

Sport had the chance to speak out against Russia in 2014 and 2018. It has only acted now because it has been forced to do so

David Goldblatt
2 March 2022, 12.00am
Vladimir Putin poses alongside FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the 2018 Russia World Cup final
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REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

One wonders quite what Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, now makes of the punchline to his speech at the opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup. Standing alongside President Putin, he quipped, “As of today, for one month, football will conquer Russia. And from Russia, it will conquer the world.” Of course, precisely the reverse was true. One must also wonder what Infantino has done with the Order of Friendship medal that Putin bestowed upon him in May 2019.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia had long bent the game to its own purposes, and if football has not quite allowed it to conquer the world, it has made a decisive contribution to the regime’s political armoury.

Putin himself does not appear to have any regard for the game, preferring the public political theatre of more manly pursuits like bareback horse riding, professional ice hockey and sambo, the Russian military’s version of judo. But this has not blinded him of football’s utility. Since he came to power in 2000, most of Russia’s major football clubs have passed into the hands of pliant oligarchs, state-controlled corporations or, as in the case of Akhmat Grozny, which is run by Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of the Chechen Republic, have become the fiefdoms of client warlords.

Other oligarchs have been allowed to take some of their money and buy into foreign clubs and the social and political circles they make available, uncontested by national football authorities and leagues. The pioneer was Roman Abramovich, who bought Chelsea in 2003, but he has been joined by, among others, Alisher Usmanov, first a shareholder at Arsenal, now at Everton; Dmitry Rybolovlev, the owner of Monaco and Club Brugge; and Ivan Savvidis, president of Thessaloniki’s PAOK. Similarly, Russia’s big state companies have all not only generously sponsored domestic football, but have gone international, too, with energy firm Gazprom sponsoring FIFA (the world’s governing body), UEFA (which oversees European football), Chelsea, Germany’s Schalke 04 and Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade.

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Back home, Russia’s football ultras have proved a deep pool of political labour, serving as the core of the Kremlin’s puppet nationalist youth movements, Walking Together and Nashi. Where necessary, they also provide the muscle to intimidate environmentalists and other lesser opponents. The reward for this kind of ‘good behaviour’ was tacit support for the ‘Hooligans on the Riviera’ escapades of 2016, when organised Russian ultras attacked England fans in Marseilles during the European football championships.

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World Cup

Winning the hosting rights for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup were masterclasses in the dark arts of global sports politics, and a financial bonanza for the regime’s closest allies. Around 50-60% of the $55bn bill for the Sochi games was alleged to have disappeared into private hands. The World Cup was, by contrast, a smaller affair, but even so the Kretovsky stadium in St Petersburg, built, in part, by North Korean near-slave labour, saw corruption send its costs rise seven-fold over the eight years it took to complete.

The Kremlin will, no doubt, have considered it money well spent. The 2018 World Cup was a very effective Potemkin village. For the duration of the tournament, public space was transformed. Where normally carousing and public drinking would be snuffed out by the police, they withdrew to the margins to create a sphere of permissible cosmopolitan hedonism, broadcast a million times over through social media.

It is worth recalling that the Kremlin chose the day of the opening game of the tournament to announce its hugely contentious pension reforms. This triggered Russia’s then biggest outbreak of public protest since the 2011 demonstrations against electoral manipulation. However, under a specific World Cup law that banned political demonstrations in host cities, these protests were rendered invisible to both domestic and international audiences.

All of this was transparently obvious to anyone who cared to look, but it has taken the invasion of Ukraine to force football institutions to examine both their gullibility and culpability

All of this was transparently obvious to anyone who cared to look, but it has taken the invasion of Ukraine to force football institutions to examine both their gullibility and culpability. UEFA was the first to react – announcing on 25 February that it would move this year’s Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris, and, three days later, ending its very generous and long-standing sponsorship deal with Gazprom.

It will also be interesting to see how long UEFA can tolerate Alexander Dyukov, the president of the Russian Football Federation and chief executive of a major subsidiary of Gazprom, as a member of its executive committee. In Germany, Schalke 04, which had been a major recipient of the Russian company’s largesse, ended its sponsorship deal earlier this week. In England, Manchester United quietly ended their £40m sponsorship deal with majority-state-owned airline Aeroflot, while Abramovich is trying to attenuate his relationship with Chelsea, through a claim that he will pass control of the club, if not ownership, to its charitable trust.

Bold Europeans

While UEFA and FIFA appeared to initially prevaricate over whether Russian teams could continue to participate in world football, some Europeans were much bolder. The Czech, Polish and Swedish football associations all made clear that they would not, under any circumstances, or at any level, play against Russian teams. They were followed by the English, Welsh and US football associations, amid a wider call for Russian teams to be excluded from all sporting events, everywhere.

FIFA, which remained silent for longer, first responded by saying that Russia would no longer be able to play at home, nor would they be allowed a national flag or anthem, and that they would be designated as the Russian Football Union. This was a riff on the playbook of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which, in a pathetic response to Russia’s state-orchestrated doping programme in world sportallowed ‘clean’ Russian athletes to compete as the Russian Olympic Committee, despite a two-year ban on Russian teams at the games.

Football has already done its work, helping to conjure up the illusion of Putin’s Russia as a pacific member of the global community, for which many were handsomely rewarded

Now, even the IOC has had to up its game, as – following on from the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 – this invasion of Ukraine marks the third time that Russia has broken the Olympic Truce by invading somewhere either during or just either side of an Olympics. Consequently, the IOC called for Russian and Belarusian teams to be excluded from all international sporting events. FIFA and UEFA, no doubt relieved that they didn’t have to make the call, followed suit.

All of this is welcome support for Ukraine, but it is all too late. It seems unlikely that, in the short to medium term, Russia’s exclusion from the global game will make any difference to the Kremlin. Football has already done its work, helping to conjure up the illusion of Putin’s Russia as a pacific member of the global community, for which many were handsomely rewarded.

One might hope that football, indeed, international sport as whole, would take this moment as a precedent and reassess its complicity with states that break international law. But in the absence of massive internal reform of its own undemocratic structures, it is hard to imagine football as a real force for peace and international justice.

As with so many Western institutions, football, blithely indifferent to every warning sign of Russian perfidy, has been traduced by its own greed, vanity and political naivety.

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