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…