As war rages, Zenit become Russian champions

ZENIT ST. Petersburg recently clinched the Russian Premier League for the fourth consecutive season, making their coach, Sergei Semak, one of the most successful in Europe over the past five years. At the same time, Ukrainian football was suspended and some stadiums had come under fire from Russian armed forces.

Zenit beat Lokomotiv Moscow 3-1 on April 30 to become champions once more, losing just two league games up to May 11. The Gazprom-owned club were comfortable winners and there is currently a 12-point margin between them and second and third placed Dynamo Moscow and Sochi with two matchdays to go.

Zenit, owned by Russian energy company Gazprom, have lost just two league games this season. Gazprom’s chairman, Alexey Miller, was ecstatic when congratulating the players and management: “The capital of football continues to grow and expand.”

However, Zenit showed a distinct lack of class in trolling Manchester United on social media after winning the league, picturing defender Danil Krugovoy holding the trophy. “This is how you win the Premier League,” they posted. The club recently announced that they had become the first Russian football club to generate over 5.5 million followers across social networks.

While the ebullient Zenit faithful celebrated their title win in typical style, casualties from the war in Ukraine were mounting. The Russian state may be selective in the dissemination of news from the front line, but the harsh reality of the conflict cannot be hidden. Russia is at war and life is trying to get on as normal. As seen on TV, opposition to the war is invariably treated with aggression.

While there is no doubting their domestic domination, Zenit continue to fall short in European competition. They finished third in their Champions League group and switched over to the Europa League but crashed out to Real Betis in the last 16. Likewise, Spartak and Lokomotiv Moscow fell short in the Europa League. Zenit’s place in the Champions League in 2022-23 will be taken by the Scottish champions.

The invasion of Ukraine has made life uncomfortable for foreign players in the Russian Premier League. Some, such as Anders Dreyer, Rubin Kazan’s Danish winger, have left Russia. Dreyer has returned to his old club, Midtjylland, until the end of June 2022. Others, like Victor Moses (Spartak), Malcom and Wendel (both Zenit) are still playing for their clubs. FIFA has said that Russia-based foreign players can leave their clubs until the end of the season.

The Russian invasion has also been the catalyst for the severing of some business relationships. UEFA, for example, have ended their long-standing and very lucrative sponsorship arrangements with Gazprom and their rather sinister animated advertising that filled TV intervals during Champions League screenings. Schalke 04 have also cut their ties with Gazprom while Manchester United ended its partnership with Aeroflot. Daniel Farke, the former manager of Norwich City, left Krasnodar before he had managed a single game for the club, while his compatriot, ex-Köln coach Markus Gisdol, walked away from Lokomotiv Moscow after just a dozen fixtures.

Russian football was not in a good place before the country’s armed forces invaded Ukraine, so the decline will surely only continue.

Russia’s economy has been destabilised by the sanctions implemented by the west and factories have been closed and inflation has reached its highest level in decades.  Analysts estimate the economy could contract by as much as 20% in 2022. A number of oligarchs have lost a lot of money. Leonid Fedun, owner of Spartak Moscow, has lost some 15% of his wealth. Needless to say, this will affect football club finances, which are invariably precarious at the best of times. The story of Anzhi Makhachkala has almost been brushed under the carpet, a short-lived gold rush involving billionaire Suleiman Kerimovm, who also invested in Uralkali, a leading producer of fertiliser. Big-name hired hands were brought in – Samuel Eto’o and Roberto Carlos among them – but the price of potash crashed and Anzhi are now in the third tier of Russian football and largely forgotten.

Over half of the Russian Premier is state-owned or backed by the local authorities. The CSKA Moscow was 22% owned by a UK company called Bluecastle Enteprises as well as state development bank, VEB. CSKA, who have been linked to former Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, reported that some of their employees had returned home when the war broke out, for “family and personal reasons related to the current situation”.

The rest of the league seems to benefit from some sort of corporate sponsorship or are owned by wealthy businessmen. The league is sponsored by Tinkoff, a Russian bank owned by Oleg Tinkov, who has spoken out about the futility of the war. He sees no beneficiary emerging from the ongoing troubles and accuses Russia of being “mired in nepotism and servility”.

Russian football was not in a good place before the country invaded Ukraine, so the decline may steepen in the next few years. Given the size of the country, it is still something of a mystery why Russia has struggled to produce a consistently competitive club, although CSKA and Zenit won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Zenit have the potential to become more prominent with their strong support and excellent stadium. They were ranked 19th in Deloitte’s Football Money League for 2022, with total revenues of more than € 200 million, but if Russia becomes an international pariah, it will difficult for the club to make progress in the short-term.

As it stands, Russia is likely to become more isolated than it has at any point since the Soviet Union split apart and from a footballing perspective, we are unlikely to see their clubs in European competition for some time. The state has used sport to ingratiate itself, and as it turns out, the protests and the fears were more than justified. As academic David Golblatt said in his piece for Open Democracy, Russia’s exclusion from world football will make little 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.” And people still wonder why there is still some discomfort over Qatar being awarded the World Cup…

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?