Russia faces sporting fallout over invasion of Ukraine

The consequences of the war are rippling through the sports world, as athletes and fans express solidarity with Ukraine.

Napoli and Barcelona players display a 'Stop War' banner
Napoli and FC Barcelona players display a 'Stop War' banner before a Europa League match [Ciro De Luca/Reuters]

In 2018, Russian football basked in international sporting acclaim – hosting a World Cup that was admired off the pitch and was successful on it as the national team reached the quarter-finals for the first time in post-Soviet history.

However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, European football clubs are now cutting ties with Russian companies, sporting organisations are moving events out of the country, and players and fans around the world are sending messages of support for Ukraine.

As long as the war continues, there are likely to be more consequences for Russian sport, both in the short and long terms.

On Saturday, Poland and Sweden announced their refusal to play Russia in March’s final playoff qualifiers for the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Polish President Andrzej Duda agreed with the decision, writing on social media: “You don’t play with bandits!”

There is now growing pressure on world football’s governing body, FIFA, and the European regulator, UEFA, to ban Russia and its clubs from international competitions.

It is a far cry from 2018 when Russian President Vladimir Putin was pictured smiling at World Cup games alongside world leaders and FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

“We also know that many people left Russia thinking ‘what a great place and what a great country’ and that is illustrative of how Putin has used sport to manipulate people’s perceptions of the country,” Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian sport at the Emlyon Business School, told Al Jazeera.

Since Putin took power in 1999, Russia has increasingly invested in the sports industry, hosting several major international events and competitions. Russian companies have signed significant sporting sponsorship deals and Russian businessmen have invested heavily in football clubs.

James Corbett, senior correspondent with football finance website Off The Pitch, said while the invasion of Ukraine has triggered widespread condemnation, he was doubtful that Russia would be banned from major sporting events.

“Russia invaded Crimea four years out from hosting a World Cup and no one batted an eyelid,” Corbett told Al Jazeera.

“Likewise, [Russia] brought the Olympics to its knees reputationally through horrendous cheating, but was still allowed to compete,” he added, referring to a state-run doping programme.

Corbett also believes there is some hypocrisy involved in the calls to banish Russia.

“For example, Britain was in an illegal occupation of Iraq when it was awarded [in 2005] the London Olympics.”

The situation may be a headache for FIFA but, in general, the sporting world has been quick to react to Russia’s aggression and to cut or reduce links with business partners and sponsors.

A day after Aeroflot was banned from the United Kingdom’s airspace, Manchester United announced that they were ending their deal with Russia’s largest airline.

German team Schalke removed the name of Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom from their shirts, UEFA switched May’s Champions League final from St Petersburg’s Gazprom Arena to Paris, Formula One has taken its Grand Prix away from Russia, and one of its teams, Haas, has removed all livery from potash producer Uralkali from its cars.

In addition, the International Olympic Committee has urged all sporting organisations to relocate their events from Russia.

However, Chadwick says that reversing years of Moscow’s investment and involvement in sport will be difficult.

“There is this interdependency with Russia, and not just in football, that has been established over the last two decades that will be difficult for European sports organisations to remove themselves from,” Chadwick said.

“UEFA learned during the pandemic that it is straightforward to move games, so it made a statement in moving the final that came at relatively low cost,” added Chadwick, but it would cost UEFA $45m a year if it decided to terminate its sponsorship deal with Gazprom.

“If UEFA is really serious about its position on Russia, we should expect them to terminate that Gazprom deal in the coming weeks,” Chadwick said.

Meanwhile, Corbett says Russian companies wishing to sponsor major international events or European teams in the future may find it more difficult “because they’re part of a pariah state and clubs and events won’t want to be associated”.

“For the companies themselves, they usually don’t sell anything to the public – it’s about getting legitimacy. The old joke ‘Let’s go and buy some Gazprom’ after watching a Champions League game has some credence. Who buys Gazprom or USM [a sponsor of English Premier League club Everton] or chooses Aeroflot over other brands? Whatever they do in the future, they’re going to have questions hanging over them.”

For European champions Chelsea, the relationship with Russia goes much deeper than sponsorship. The English Premier League team is the highest-profile sporting asset owned by a Russian in Europe. After taking over at Stamford Bridge in 2003, owner Roman Abramovich’s massive investment has turned Chelsea into one of the most successful in the world.

On the day of the invasion, British MP Chris Byrant suggested to Parliament that the UK should seize Abramovich’s assets and bar him from owning the London club. Two days later, Abramovich announced that he was transferring the running of Chelsea to the trustees of its charitable foundation, although he will remain the club’s owner.

“This is significant in terms of Abramovich’s investment in Chelsea but it’s not just about him, there is also [Chelsea’s Russian-Canadian director] Marina Granovskaia who is really pivotal in Chelsea’s strategy in signing players,” said Chadwick.

Stronger sanctions could affect how the club does business.

“You could find these people being monitored, movements restricted and visas denied, freezes being out on movement of assets across boundaries that could involve transfer fees,” he said.

One potential sanction that is being discussed is cutting Russia off from SWIFT, a global payments system.

Iranian football has struggled to operate outside the system – an Iranian national federation official told Al Jazeera that the organisation has had difficulties collecting money owed by FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation, while clubs have faced problems in receiving transfer fees from overseas.

Russian footballers and athletes will be waiting to see what happens in the coming weeks and months as European sporting teams, organisations and players decide how to respond to the war.

“It all comes down to how you see money and politics and what you think the trade-off is,” said Chadwick. “You might have to sacrifice economically but politically and maybe even morally, you can make a point.”

The initial reaction from the sport in Europe may have been rapid but there is a long way to go.

“It remains to be seen if Europe can sustain this,” said Chadwick. “But if this is the long-term trajectory then Russian football will find itself increasingly isolated and could be in trouble.”

Source: Al Jazeera