FIFA and UEFA must learn from the Russia and Qatar experience

Football was warned about Russia and is being cautioned over Qatar. For a game that goes to great lengths to virtue signal whenever it can and attach itself to causes, from rainbow laces to food poverty, not to mention the black lives matter campaign, football can be pretty naïve sometimes. Or maybe it is simply seduced by money and bullied by professional politicians?

The latest threat to football’s sanity – and credibility – is crypto currency, snake-oil salesmen are pitching up with their beards, tattoos and baseball caps, calling everyone “guys” and promising to make fans beneficiaries of possibly the greatest example of smoke and mirrors since Danny Kaye sang about a Danish king being in the “altogether”.

But this is merely part of a trend of delusion that has engulfed football for some years. Football’s governing bodies have shown they are more than capable of being attracted to shiny things, such as buckets of money from sponsors or backers that will use the world’s most popular sport to launder their image (if not their money).

FIFA were lambasted for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, UEFA were criticised for allowing Russia’s Gazprom for having such an influence on European football. The Gazprom logo became ubiquitous, their strange, partly-animated TV ads were somewhat ominous for as well as lighting up the Champions League, they also had the power to switch off Europe. The willingness to jump into bed with anyone willing to bring along their wheelbarrows full of cash, not only paints people as foolhardy, it also suggests procedures such as due diligence and reputational risk are severely lacking. Notwithstanding the stupidity of continually expanding competitions, increasing fixture lists and greasing-up to nations with dubious human rights records, most of the sensible world has told FIFA and UEFA, repeatedly, they are making very damaging misjudgements.

Football does have a track record of ridiculous errors. It also swims in a sea of hypocrisy and if footballers in England and other countries were really as savvy as they portray, they would walk away from a winter World Cup in Qatar. But equally, the governing bodies allow themselves to be manipulated and no matter how much they try to talk-up 2022, they have miscalculated the impact Qatar (and indeed, Russia), will have on the long-term reputation of FIFA and football.

Football has to think more about reputational and concentration risk. Two World Cups have damaged the governing bodies but also highlight the game’s habit of easily shelving its values.

Gianni Infantino’s message to Russia after 2018 now looks as pollyanna as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” demonstration. “You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken. This is not the end, it is only the beginning.” Poor old Gianni, he must be very red-faced when he reads that today. Four years later, Russia is at war with Ukraine and millions of people are suffering.

Sadly, there are precedents to consider, such as the 1936 Olympics where Adolf Hitler’s Germany greeted the world. Three years on, Germany invaded Poland and life was never the same. In 1934, Italy was host nation for the World Cup and a year later, invaded Abyssinia. In 1978, a Junta-led Argentina won their own World Cup and in 1982, took over the Falkland Islands and then went to war with Britain. In the case of Russia, everyone was a little nervous about the 2018 World Cup but equally, came away believing the country had embarked on a charm offensive.

The subsequent events in Ukraine have shown that Vladimir Putin was as genuine as Hitler in his outward displays of affection. As a result, Gazprom has been removed from the FIFA partnership group and Schalke 04 are no longer sponsored by the Russian energy company. The impact of the war has extended to British football, most notably with the sanctions on Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich. While the story has moved on and Chelsea are now in US hands, there should be few complaints about the removal of an owner whose links with the Russian regime are well documented. He helped Gazprom’s growth by selling his stake in Sibneft to the Saint Petersburg-based company.

Gazprom are 51%-owned by the Russian state, so their involvement in football around Europe represents a back-door route into expanding their footprint. Putin’s government has exercised systematic control over many aspects of Russian business, namely banks, petrochemicals and infrastructure. Gazprom does not sell gas to consumers directly, it sells its offering to governments and as the world’s biggest natural gas company, it is accountable for 17% of global production and around 8% of Russian GDP. Conversely, Gazprom is one of the biggest producers of Carbon Dioxide emissions, a fact that has made them unpopular with many people, as evidenced at a football match between Basel and Schalke 04 when a huge banner was unfurled sending a message to the Russians – “Don’t foul the Arctic”.

But Gazprom’s strategy in football has actually been quite transparent. Schalke 04, who Gazprom began sponsoring in 2007, are based in the Ruhrgebeit, an area in Germany that produces vast quantities of coal. Gazprom were involved in negotiations with Germany over the constructions of a Russian-German pipeline. Having dealt with that project, Gazprom looked further south and bought a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s state-owned and gas company.  From 2010, they also sponsored Red Star Belgrade, saving the club from bankruptcy while strengthening links in Serbia.

UEFA and FIFA have both embraced Gazprom with such eagerness they must be questioning their practices, such was the scope of their sponsorship that you have to wonder about concentration risk. If Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City (and Newcastle United will come under more pressure with regards to their Saudi Arabian ownership) are highlighted for being state-run or controlled, then surely the governing bodies must face similar criticism. Notwithstanding the World Cup bidding process and how Russia and Qatar won their rights, the involvement of Gazprom must border on a form of state-controlled involvement? If nothing else, it also smacks of concentration risk to have such a presence from one company.

Going forward, both UEFA and FIFA will need to implement far greater intensity around their compliance operations and the basic principles behind placing trust in suspect regimes. This is, after all, not just a case of holding a football tournament, FIFA’s reputation is at stake, and no amount of money can buy a good name once you have lost your credibility. Football needs a strong regulator, robust and value-driven leadership and a clear understanding of what right and wrong look like. In an era of mistrust and scrutiny of business, social and political practices, football should be no different.

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?