Football Stands Together
Over the last week, Russia has initiated a military operation in neighbouring Ukraine. Governments around the world have made major decisions and been outspoken towards the events. Murmurs of World War 3 or at least the involvement of other European countries have been increasingly more worrying and countries have already offered military, financial and social support to Ukraine and its population.
So where does football come into this? In this blog, I will be assessing the status that football has and its ability to affect political situations. I will begin by describing the action that football has taken so far and then analyse how, why and when football can influence such global and political events and the issues this raises. I will also specifically look at the predicament that Chelsea have found themselves in alongside their owner, Roman Abramovich as a result of the war.
Four years ago, the 2018 football world cup in Russia went ahead, despite calls for it to be boycotted or moved after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. With Russia now invading Ukraine during a world cup year, football immediately discussed the presence of the Russian national team and Russian clubs in global and European competitions.
Firstly, the 2022 UEFA Champions League Final was set to take place on the 28th May at the Saint Petersburg Stadium in Krestovsky Island, Russia. One of the first measures that football took against Putin’s military operation in Ukraine was removing the privilege of hosting the UCL final. UEFA very quickly made the decision to move the final to the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, Paris.
Another important issue to address was Russia’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Poland and then either Sweden or Czech Republic. Originally, FIFA publicly announced that, following discussions with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), they had decided to impose sanctions on the Russian national team. This included changing their name to the Football Union of Russia, playing in neutral venues with no fans in attendance and without the display of their flag or singing of their anthem. However, this fell short of expelling them from competing in the world cup qualifiers. Instead, it seemed similar to the IOC’s approach to Russia in the Olympics competing under the Russian Olympic Committee.
These measures were put in place by the IOC to take a stance against the systematic doping problem in Russian athletes. Many agreed that the military operation called for more severe sanctions and punishments. As the military actions continued, FIFA recognised the need to take a more drastic approach to show that football condemned Russia’s actions. They changed the sanctions to ban Russia from all forms of international competition until further notice. This will include the men’s world cup qualifiers and the tournament itself and the women’s European championship. This has been received in a far more supportive way, including by government officials, than the original decision to simply change the name of the Russian national team. However, Russia has also announced that it will appeal the ban imposed upon them and this will go through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Poland, Czech Republic and Sweden reinforced the opinions of many as they mutually agreed to refuse to play against Russia, no matter what name they competed under, if FIFA were to let them. This pattern continued as Scotland, Switzerland, Northern Ireland and England agreed to adopt the same policy. Scotland were scheduled to play Russia more than once this year but were also set to refuse to play the fixtures unless the situation was resolved sufficiently before there were any sanctions from FIFA. FIFA’s ban now means that this will no longer be necessary. FIFA have also considered Ukraine’s World Cup qualifying fixture against Scotland to be delayed. Robert Lewandowski, the Polish striker and Bayern Munich star, set a precedent for footballers with a large following and influence around the world by outwardly speaking against Russia competing as a national team. This has also been echoed in leagues across the footballing world with displays of unity and solidarity being seen at the beginning of games or in goal celebrations by players, especially those of Eastern European heritage, and reinforced by fans in an unified stance against Putin’s use of force on Ukraine.
At the time, Spartak Moscow were the only Russian team left in a European competition, the Europa League. However, UEFA issued a joint statement with FIFA and extended the sanctions on Russia to include a ban on all Russian clubs participating in competitions. Spartak Moscow will now be expelled from the Europa League. Formula 1 had already taken such a decision by cancelling the Russian Grand Prix for the 2022 season despite it not being set to take place until September. They have also removed Russian driver, Nikita Mazepin, from the Haas team.
Whilst there are more important and critical situations unfolding in the country, inevitably, the military action has had a significant impact on football in Ukraine itself. The Ukrainian top division, the Premier Liga, has been postponed for a minimum of 30 days in light of Russia’s actions. The league includes major European clubs such as Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. Dynamo Kyiv have decided to continue to train in an act of defiance against the Russian forces. Other clubs have dealt with this in different ways such as creating a volunteer group where players and fans have stayed to fight on the frontline as part of the Ukrainian army. This includes the former Arsenal player and now coach, Oleh Luzhnyi.
Chelsea and Roman Abromovich
Russia’s influence on football reaches further than just its national teams and clubs competing in European cups, The Russian billionaire and long-term owner of Chelsea, Roman Abramovic, has been targeted as a prime individual with influence over both football and Russia. An MP in the House of Commons called for him to sell the club. Rather than sell the club, which he originally stated he had no intention to do, Abramovic instead made his first announcement that he was handing over ‘stewardship and control’ of Chelsea to the charitable foundation of the club. However, this seemed more of a symbolic rather than a meaningful notion as the chairman of the charity is also the chairman of the club already so very little changes in reality.
Over the next few days, his decision changed and he publicly announced that he was now open to offers for Chelsea football club in the region of around a £4million asking price whilst also setting up a charitable fund for victims in Ukraine. This was more of a significant gesture in trying to detach Russian involvement from English football. It was part of Abramovic’s wider ploy to sell off his UK assets including his London mansion in fear that his assets may be frozen under a government-imposed sanction as a result of his relationship with Putin. His fears quickly became a reality as the sale of his beloved club was halted after the UK government sanctioned Abromovich and froze all of his assets.
This has had a major impact on Chelsea FC already: their main shirt sponsor 3 have suspended their £40million-per-year partnership, no new contracts can be signed, no transfers can be made, no merchandise can be sold, their company credit cards were frozen by Barclays, no tickets can be purchased by spectators that are not season ticket holders and they have even been given travel restrictions that may result in their removal from the UEFA Champions League. Significantly, it has also stalled the sale of the club as Abramovic can now only continue with the sale under a special license granted by the UK government and under the condition that Abromovic will not personally benefit from the sale. It is hoped that the sale will be completed in 4-6 weeks. There also remains hope as major sponsors Nike and Trivago have agreed to continue their support and sponsorship of the team. With all the negative news surrounding Abramovic, a spokesperson for the businessman has claimed that Abramovic is also working on brokering a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine and using his position of power to seek an end to the violence in Ukraine.
It is not only Chelsea that has been impacted by the war. Russian businesses and banks have positions as major sponsors in many football clubs globally. Most significantly since the military action began, Manchester United have removed the Russian state airline, Areoflot, as an official airline sponsor and other clubs have followed suit as the situation continues and worsens. Everton repeated United’s example by suspending all commercial sponsorship obligations with three Russian companies, USM Holdings, MegaFon and Yota in deals worth over £20million a season. Moreover, the world-leading sports brand, Adidas, have suspended their sponsorship deal with the Russian national team. However, China, a global powerhouse and political ally of Russia, has also made decisions in response to football’s reaction. They have cancelled their TV and Broadcasting deal with the Premier League and European football after the sanctions were put on Russian football. Meanwhile, the Premier League has taken directly opposing action by withdrawing the broadcasting of the Premier League in Russia.
What Makes Football Get Involved?
Political events create a substantial predicament for football. There are many contributing factors and considerations that need to be made when football’s governing bodies assess how football should react to such events. There have been several wars and political situations where football has not responded significantly, such as the Iraq war. If football is going to take on a responsibility as influencing and impacting political events, there must be a foolproof system in order to find the right balance of involvement. However, this is a very difficult task and often, whatever decision football makes, to get involved or not and to what extent, will be objected to by some.
One question that could be asked about football and politics is the fairness of impacting individual players that do not carry any responsibility for the political actions they are being sanctioned for. The Russian national football team and its players may disagree with sanctions being imposed upon them as they themselves are not part of the politics and simply want to play football. And what about in the case of Chelsea? Do the fans, players and staff of this historic English club deserve to be victims of the ramifications of the sanctions placed upon their Russian owner? Here, football and its governing bodies have to decide whether the situation necessitates an intervention and imposition of sanctions on the football teams connected to the political issue as these punishments might help achieve a positive political impact despite ‘inconveniencing’ the athletes affected.
What About When Football Doesn’t Stand Together?
Football does not always stand together or take a united stance on politics. Back in 2019, Mesut Ozil spoke out in condemnation of China’s treatment of the Uighur muslims. Arsenal immediately distanced themselves from Ozil’s comments stating that they ‘do not involve themselves in politics’. This was an example of a global issue that football did not deem to be significant enough for FIFA to take action.
Football is selective about which political events it responds to. It seems arbitrary to pick and choose which global politics are significant enough for football to react to. I believe that if football, its clubs and its players are taking a united stance against the military actions of Russia, it therefore has given itself the duty of doing so in all instances of conflict and war. It is great that football is able to have a positive influence on these things but it comes with a responsibility to do so in a fair and complete manner. It cannot simply opt not to involve itself in some events whilst taking significant action against others.
Pressure continues to heighten on FIFA and other governing bodies to use the power and widespread influence of football to react to the military actions in Ukraine. As the biggest sport in the world, perhaps football governing bodies are capable of making major decisions that could influence war. However, it is not as simple as placing sporting sanctions on a country. There are many issues, obstacles, factors and considerations to be made before football’s governing bodies take decisive action to impact politics.
The overlap of football and politics is, however, unavoidable. A sport with such a global audience has an important status. The policies of football’s governing bodies and the actions of players and fans can go as far as helping to prevent or stop the outbreak of war or influence other political events. Clubs and governing bodies should be aware of their power to influence and use their position in the public spotlight for the greater good, especially in crises.