THE game of football has always been combative and has invariably provoked rivalry among individuals, teams and countries, but it is also a product of peace, a tribal pastime that allows animal spirits to be exercised without loss of life or injury. This is one of the reasons why football is so universally popular and has become the world’s most popular sport. At the same time, the resulting aggression means that often, the game boils over.
There are worrying times; in the last 15 years, many of the main pillars of society have been disrupted. Just consider: Economically, we had our confidence in financial institutions and their governance shattered in 2008; environmentally, the climate has become unpredictable, extreme and often dangerous; our health services have been challenged by a pandemic, throwing us back to a time when disease and contagion ripped through populations; and now, our security is under threat by the behaviour of a dictator, evoking memories of two world wars. Against this latest development, the sporting world has been trying to conjure up an appropriate response.
In 1942, Germany wanted to stage the World Cup. It didn’t happen, of course, but after the 1939-1945 war, West Germany didn’t appear again until 1954. The Soviet Union was also slow to emerge, but when it did, it was as a twitchy, mistrusting nation in red shirts with CCCP emblazoned across them.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to have dire longer-term consequences for Vladimir Putin and his empire. Russia has broken the peace on a grand scale and has taken on the persona of a militaristic state eager to land grab and bully. There are echoes of the strategy and tactics of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. In doing so, Russia can no longer be a stable-mate of UEFA and FIFA members and the welcoming hand of sport should no longer be extended. Russia should be evicted from membership of football’s main bodies and the Olympics, among other sporting organisations. Who would want to play against a Russian team or compete against representatives from a war-mongering nation?
The war in Ukraine will expose football for what it has become, a cash-snatching industry that seems to care little about where the filthy lucre comes from. In England, the focus has largely been on Saudi Arabian money heading to Newcastle and Abu Dhabi’s riches settling in Manchester City’s lap, but Russia has got off relatively lightly until now and London has become something of a safe haven for Russian money, so much so it has been called, “Moscow on Thames”.
The World Cup of 2018 staging process attracted fierce criticism and initial hostility around Russia being named as hosting, but when the hordes visited Moscow and other cities, they were impressed by what they saw.
Like Hitler in the 1936 Olympics, a glossy, public version of Russia was presented to the visiting fans. This was followed by embarrassing, scycophantic comments by FIFA’s Gianni Infantino, who declared “the world loves Russia” and embraced the grim-faced Putin like a brother. Both UEFA and FIFA have largely ignored Russia’s attempts at “sportswashing” and leapt into bed with the likes of Gazprom, who not only control a big chunk of Europe’s energy, but a number of football clubs.
It is difficult to ignore Russia, however, as the tanks circle Kiev. Roman Abramovich, perhaps fearing some sanctions may impact his ownership of Chelsea, has passed over control to the foundation connected to the club. Abramovich is rarely seen these days and very few people have heard him speak since he bought the club from Ken Bates in 2003. But the UK Home Office linked him to the Russian administration some time ago and there are now calls for his assets to be seized. Abramovich, generally, is liked by the Chelsea faithful, but this latest development should concern them. If the Ukraine war is prolonged and becomes increasingly ugly, could it spell the beginning of the end of his ownership at Stamford Bridge?
Abramovich may seem like a personable fellow, particularly to Chelsea’s fans, but it should not be forgotten this wealth was created through a corrupt system. For example, Russia was ranked 136th out of 180 in the Corruption Perceptions Index and 126th out of 165 in the Human Freedom Index in 2021. Is he not a product of that system?
It has been clear for a long time that Putin’s agenda has been formulated by delusion and desire as well as a very convenient misinterpretation of history. Russia’s World Cup and its links with football’s governing bodies have clearly served a purpose and the sporting world has been well and truly used and abused, despite the warnings of so many, so very often.
The divorce may have already started, but UEFA and FIFA have to distance themselves from Russia and all undesirable regimes that want to exploit football (and other sports) as unofficial public relations departments. That means removal from international competition at the earliest opportunity. It may seem hard to punish a country where so many people have little idea about their government’s plans, but in the circumstances, there is little else the world can do other than apply sanctions. Russians, like most people, love their football, so the signal will be obvious.
FIFA and UEFA’s investigations shouldn’t stop with Russia. FIFA must learn from past mistakes and ask itself if a Qatar-hosted competition will do further damage to its reputation. And at the same time, the UK Football Association has to examine what is acceptable club ownership. Just as the pandemic exposed football’s flimsy economic model, it has taken armed conflict to highlight the possible vulnerability of football clubs partnering with suspect regimes or companies.
Admittedly, there are more important areas of concern around this discussion and we must all hope Ukraine’s suffering is short-lived and that the damage can be limited. Given the world is so interconnected, we can never dismiss a far-off war as being outside of our immediate sphere of concern. War should be consigned to the past, there are other more civilised ways to deal with disputes.