Should Russian footballers also be banned?

RUSSIAN football teams have been suspended from European competition and Russian businessmen have had their assets frozen, but what of the thousands of Russians who work abroad? With that in mind, isn’t there a case for Russian footballers also be suspended in response to their country’s invasion and subsequent destruction of Ukraine?

Some might argue it has little to do with Russians who live outside of their own country, but the tennis appears to have suspended Russian players, so surely footballers should also be prevented from competing? The UK Prime Minister has already called for FIFA to ban Russian football officials from their meetings.

The decision to ban Russian tennis players has been met with very differing opinions. Wimbledon has barred all Russian and Belarussians from their 2022 tennis tournament, but the ATP and WTA, along with legendary champion Martina Navratilova, have criticised the move. It will be the first time players have been banned on the grounds of nationality since the immediate post-WW2 era when German and Japanese players were not included.

The Soviet Union excluded itself from European club competition until 1967, although they were early advocates (and winners) of the European Championship. Russia has been banned from FIFA and UEFA competitions and it is unlikely they will be readmitted until the current situation ends. Even then, there is an argument for Russia’s ban to continue beyond the Ukraine war. However, international sports should be something that brings nations together, so prolonged exclusion and insisting on Russia wearing the status of pariah for years to come will have its drawbacks. A recent report suggests that, in response to the ban, the Russian Football Union is now looking at the possibility of quitting European football permanently and switching to the Asian Football Confederation.

There are currently around 190 Russian players dotted around the world, but very few are employed by top football clubs. In the big five European leagues, there are only a handful of Russian players, but in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Estonia, they are plentiful. In Scotland, Livingston’s goalkeeper, Ivan Konovalov comes from Belashikha and is the only Russian playing full-time football in the UK. He was signed from Rubin Kazan.

Some Russian players have subtly expressed support for Ukraine from a distance, but it must surely make for an uncomfortable atmosphere at any club with a Russian player in the dressing room. Any suspension of a player would be temporary, depending on the length and outcome of the war. In 1982, Tottenham Hotspur’s Ossie Ardiles was sent into exile while the Falklands War raged in the South Atlantic. He later returned, but it was designed to get the popular Argentinian out of the way.

Why are relatively few Russians around? Sergei Semak, currently coach of Zenit St. Petersburg, told Game of the People a few years ago that the lack of exported talent was not necessarily good for the Russian game. “Young players do not have the motivation to improve or stretch themselves. They can earn top money in Russia so they do not feel the need to move abroad to get international experience. So they do not broaden their outlook or improve,” said Semak.

The Russian squad in the World Cup 2018 included just two non domestic-based players, while in Euro 2020, there were four. The top flight league in Russia comprises 37% foreigners and more than 50% of the Zenit and Rubin Kazan squads are expatriates. Zenit have a penchant for Brazilian players and currently have five on their books. At the moment, nobody is likely to employ another Russian player even if they became available as the domestic game is not in a good place right now. There has been no shortage of money, but much of it has not been spent very well.

While Ukraine has now formally ended its campaign, the Russian season continues to its climax. Zenit St. Petersburg have just clinched a fourth consecutive title after beating Lokomotiv Moscow 3-1 in front of 48,000 people. As it stands, Zenit will not be able to compete in the UEFA Champions League in 2022-23. Zenit have lost just twice this season in the Russian Premier.

When this sad affair is concluded, Ukraine will have the hardest job in repairing their country, but the international community will surely help them. As for Russia, the damage they have done to their reputation, their global standing and their old relationships will take decades to put right. Against that backdrop, how would the average Russian footballer feel, playing his trade in a foreign country?

Why we should care about owners

A LOT of Chelsea fans were extremely upset about the treatment of Roman Abramovich and the sanctions on his business activities, which ultimately meant the popular but enigmatic Russian was forced to put the football club up for sale.

Given what we now know about the war in Ukraine and indeed some of Abramovich’s business connections, the UK government, on this occasion, did the right thing. As far as Chelsea fans are concerned, he has been a good owner and he has certainly funded the unprecedented success the club has enjoyed since 2003. Interestingly, when he arrived at Stamford Bridge, there was an air of suspicion about Chelsea coming under Russian influence!

It is difficult to get too upset about the sale of Chelsea, especially given the dreadful and totally unacceptable events taking place elsewhere, but we should care deeply about the ownership structure of our football clubs, no matter how old they are, how devoted we may be about our obsessions and how aware we may be of geopolitics, economics and history. While we should not attempt to rewrite history, we should be aware of the consequences of past events. Football encourages myopia, but the sport is supposed to be a thing of joy, not one that has blood-stained hands or dubious secrets locked away in some dark corner.

The fact is, we all become accountable if we support any aspect of life that we know has a darker side, be it corporates, government bodies, charities, political groups and of course, football clubs.  We can bury our heads in the sand, and many do, but at some point, we all have to accept there are far more important things in life than football.

For most of us, football has become an emollient, a sport that brings people together, breaks down barriers and provides a form of global language. Its mass appeal makes it attractive to so many aspects of commercial life: TV, internet, companies, investors and so on. Go anywhere in the world and talk about football to a stranger and more often than not, you will find common ground. Football may be all about rivalry, but when the dust settles, we all understand it (unless you dig into the mechanics of VAR).

But what we are grappling with today is how our clubs are run, how they are financed and how “clean” some of the owners of our beloved football institutions around the world might be. It is naïve to claim owners from a very suspect regime make for ideal benefactors, no matter how much fancy dress and ostrich behaviour tries to obscure the fact very bad things happen. Similary, if you are aware of the history of the Soviet Union and its break-up, it is hard to feel much sympathy with oligarchs who get their assets frozen. It is unfortunate this affects something like a football club, but it would be wrong to make concessions.

This goes way beyond elite football and even extends into the non-league world. One of the overriding emotions in the game is green-eyed envy, which can manifest itself in resentment over budgets, stadium development or the presence of so-called “sugar daddies”. There’s also a lot of nonsense spoken about club wage bills and how much the local centre forward might be earning and also the source of a club’s income. There’s very little confidentiality in football, rumour becomes “fact” very quickly.

Equally, ownership at this level of the game can be equally dubious. Over the years, there have been tales of possible money laundering, property opportunism, tax evasion, shadow accountancy and gate-rigging. The latter is a practice sometimes laughed about when a cup game’s attendance is announced but looking the other way makes everyone guilty by association. League and club sponsorship should be treated with a very robust level of due diligence and subject to strict regulation.

There are also deep moral issues at stake. For example, given the hand-to-mouth existence of many clubs, the temptation to take money from the gambling industry has become a trend that has got out of hand. With clubs going to great lengths to show they are caring, sharing organisations, it does seem somewhat hypocritical to bite the hands off gambling firms knowing what the industry can do to vulnerable people chasing the hopeless dream. Just look at how many clubs have some sort of sponsorship from betting companies. Coming soon… bitcoin and non-fungible tokens.

There is a chance the Chelsea situation could have a profound influence on the future of football club ownership as much as the war in Ukraine will impact the corporate world and everyday life in the future. This may bring some inconvenience, but it could be a good thing for football because for years, the industry had become something of a wild west gold rush. It has not exactly been lawless, but it has been embroiled in politics, financial abuse and very creative accountancy. This has created a form of free market elitism that has been the catalyst for ever-widening chasms between the rich and poor clubs as well as transfer fees that are totally unrealistic and player wages that can border on the obscene.

This has all been fuelled by spiralling broadcasting contracts, sovereign state funding and those billionaire owners sitting with oversized club scarves draped around their necks. Some clubs are now heavily influenced by the money and culture of foreign countries, arguably an inevitable development in this age of globalisation. It’s still the game of the people, but they are very different, often completely detached people. For example, has anyone actually heard Mr Abramovich speak?