Ukraine: Football’s response

by | Mar 10, 2022

“Gesture politics” is currently filed alongside “woke” as a derogatory term; used, for example, to disparage players’ continuing “taking (of the) knee)” before matches, an anti-discrimination message to football’s global audience. But football’s gestures of solidarity with Ukraine after Russia’s invasion has been so widespread and demonstrably heartfelt that the term’s reputation has been considerably enhanced.

The solidarity expressed by individual players and their clubs, especially but not exclusively those with Ukrainians in their squads, has exposed Fifa’s initial reluctance to do likewise for the craven suck-up to Russia and Vladimir Putin that it was. And it is far less easy to be cynical about actions such as video games group Electronic Arts (EA) Sports’ removal of Russian teams from its “Fifa 22” product, when it comes as part of such a huge global effort by football and the football-related to inflict pariah status on Russia.

EA Sports tweeted on Monday that they stood “in solidarity with the Ukrainian people and like so many voices across the world of football, calls for peace and an end to the invasion of Ukraine.” On its own, no biggie, hard to imagine being relevant, let alone comforting, to beleaguered under-bombardment Ukrainians. But of course, the “voices across the world of football” have started doing much more.

As I began researching this article, Everton and Tottenham fans were giving Everton sub Vitali Mykolenko’s introduction a standing ovation. And this wasn’t because the 22-year-old ex-Dynamo Kyiv left-back would have improved Everton just by knowing his own name. Such gestures have been commonplace. And the English game looks ready to act beyond such gestures. More ready than Her Majesty’s Government in some instances, you might think.

The English Premier League (EPL) response was a bit eventual, too, although they trumpeted taking only 15 minutes of this week’s board meeting to unanimously agree to suspend its nearly-finished three-year broadcast deal in Russia. With an electorate of 20 clubs, one actually wonders what took so long. Maybe there was a proposal to continue showing Manchester United games, as a punishment. The FA and the Football League (EFL) followed suit. So, no more “magic of the FA Cup” or Rotherham/Sheffield Wednesday for the foreseeable.

The EPL also managed to look generous yet somehow stingy with their “£1m donation to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC),” the overarching fundraiser organiser for UK charities, “to deliver humanitarian aid directly to those in need.” It represents a sliver of their broadcast income, ten BILLION pounds over the next three years (minus the £6m Russian loose change they will lose). Yet it was an unsolicited gesture of relevant practical value. So you are welcome to consider me a bit over-cynical, on this point at least.

Uzbek-born oligarch (and once owner of 30% of Arsenal, lest we forget) Alisher Usmanov’s involvement in financing Everton’s new stadium at Bramley Moore Dock has been a victim of his company USM’s sanctioning by the UK government and the European Union. Everton’s suspension of its deals with Usmanov firms, including a stadium naming rights deal and sponsorship of their Finch Farm training ground and their women’s team, has reportedly left a bigger hole in their finances than in their back-four at Tottenham. And Usmanov can’t sell his £600m yacht, Dilbar, to help fill that hole because the German government have reportedly swiped it.

Manchester United withdrew their “official carrier” Russian airline Aeroflot’s sponsorship rights, which, like the EPL’s Russia broadcast deal, were to end next year anyway. So they must look elsewhere for the “organisational expertise and strategic advice on travel arrangements for the team and its officials” which Aeroflot supposedly provided. United have had this deal since 2013. It survived Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. But with Aeroflot currently banned from flying to the UK, the airline won’t have wanted to lose the work, especially as United’s current form suggests that European travel advice could be vital in the relatively-uncharted corners of Uefa’s Conference League.

And Chelsea’s “un-fans” are dreaming of a Roman Abramovich-less club sliding out of Champions League contention, unable to meet payroll on newly-diminished finances and back in the financial peril from which (to give him his full title) the at-long-bloody-last sanctioned Abramovich’s reputedly filthy lucre rescued them in 2003. Especially as certain Chelsea people have displayed a Mr Magoo-like ability to read the proverbial room.

Shortly after Abramovich declared he was selling Chelsea, the mercifully inimitable John Terry tweeted “The best” above a picture of he and Abramovich holding the just-bought EPL trophy. When criticised in parliament by Labour MP Chris Bryant, Terry cited Bryant’s vote to invade Iraq in 2003 and Bryant improperly claiming “fortunes in expenses of the tax payers money” (sic) in 2015. This was then 25% of Terry’s weekly wage. And while thousands at Burnley/Chelsea last Saturday expressed solidarity with Ukraine, some Chelsea fans sang Abramovich’s name. Because…fcukwits.

Newcastle co-owner Amanda Staveley supplied comparable fcukwittery, in plusher surroundings, to the Business of Football Summit in London’s Biltmore Mayfair Hotel. Answering a question from London-based New York Times newspaper journo Tariq Panja, a go-to writer on sports corruption, Staveley claimed to be “really sad that someone is going to have a football club taken away because of a relationship they may have with someone. I don’t think that’s particularly fair.” Twenty-eight words, two factual errors and a bullsh*t conclusion. Impressive…in its own way.

But Chelsea un-fans’ dreams might not be entirely pipe, especially now that Abramovich has been sanctioned. He didn’t want his £1.5bn loans to Chelsea’s UK parent company Fordstam repaid BY Chelsea. But his rejection of 2018’s £2bn offer from billionaire season-ticket holder and founder/CEO of chemical company Ineos, Jim Ratcliffe, suggests he hadn’t written them off. And they have barely covered club losses over his 17 years as owner, which included multiple lucrative triumphs. The latest annual loss, £149m, was in a Covid-hit but Champions League-winning season. So, football must thoroughly vet anyone who says they can bankroll those losses legitimately.

Ultimately, though, someone about whom the Home Office reportedly said in 2019 “remains of interest to (the government) due to his links with the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices” shouldn’t BE in football. And now he might not be. But keep singing his name, Chelsea fans.

Fifa continues to lag. Its latest halfway house is letting foreign players and coaches at “clubs affiliated to the Football Union of Russia” (FUR) “unilaterally suspend their employment contracts” until the end of the season, 30th June, until when they will be free to join another club without “consequences of any kind.” By which they mean financial consequences, the only ones Fifa understands. These employees’ positions on 1st July, back with their current clubs, wasn’t covered. Fifa has also deemed all such contracts with Ukraine’s clubs “automatically suspended” until 30th June, “unless the parties to the relevant contract explicitly agree otherwise.”

In their announcement, Fifa again condemned the “on-going use of force by Russia in Ukraine” rather than Russia’s presence there at all. And, on the subject of not going far enough, world players union, Fifpro, said that “these players should be allowed to terminate their contracts” because while some Fifa measures were “helpful,” the overall decision was “too timid” as it would be “hard for players to find employment” this season in such uncertain circumstances “and “within a few weeks, they will be in a very difficult situation once again.”

On the other side of this track, ex-Ukraine captain and current assistant coach at Russian side Zenit St Petersburg, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, has angered Ukraine’s Association of Football (UAE) for making no “public statements” on “Russia’s military aggression” and staying “with the club of the aggressor.” They want his coaching licence, his Ukrainian league and cup wins and his place on the “official register” of Ukraine internationals taken. Airbrushed from history, effectively. Very Soviet Russia.

Fifa’s World Cup ban on Russia (and Uefa banning them from the women’s Euros) may be tested at Lausanne’s Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), to which FUR has appealed. If the two teams were not re-instated, FUR would request “interim measures” to “set aside” the decisions AND, audaciously, suspend the competitions themselves. A summer World Cup in Qatar could beckon yet.

FUR believed “that Fifa and Uefa did not have a legal basis” for their decisions and claimed that they were “not given the right to present its position, which violated the fundamental right to defence.” Quite what that position would be, the gods alone know. FUR accused Fifa and Uefa of not considering “other possible options for action” except for Russia’s “complete exclusion.” Which showed that Fifa’s original sanction against Russia, forcing them to compete under another name without flag and anthem, wasn’t impactful enough for even the sanctioned to remember, ten days later.

FUR also sought “an expedited procedure” to let Russia play their World Cup play-off semi-final, on 24th and 29th March, against a Poland team which had already refused to play the games and already have a bye to a play-off final against Sweden or the Czech Republic (by welcome contrast, Ukraine’s play-oof with Scotland has been postponed until June). AND FUR were after “compensation for damage,” as the decisions had “violated” their “fundamental rights as a member of Fifa and Uefa.”

Yet, with their irony long-since off the scale, FUR also made a technically good point that the World Cup decision was made “under pressure by direct rivals in the play-offs, which violated the principles of sports and fair play,” as well as setting a potentially dangerous precedent. And one imagines FUR asking “what about America invading Iraq yet being allowed to stay in the World Cup?” Whataboutery originated in Russia, after all.

Of course, charges of hypocrisy could be levelled at many football people who have become so keen on punishing violent human rights violations. Fifa President Gianni Infantino visited Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman on Tuesday to “discuss sports co-operation,” FFS. As Panja tweeted: “Perhaps Gianni told them that now Fifa has banned Russia from football, it might have to do the same to Saudi if it keeps dropping bombs on Yemen’s civilian population. Or perhaps not.” But a major characteristic of hypocrisy is being right half the time. Football’s current hypocrites are right on Ukraine. And FUR remain firmly filed under “go fcuk yourselves.” Let’s hope CAS can say just that.

Putin won’t be phased by football alone. Neither leader seemed to know one end of a football from the other when Putin presented what global media maddeningly called a “soccer ball” to then-US president Donald Trump in Helsinki, the day after the Russian-hosted 2018 World Cup finals finished. Yet it has a background role in making Russia global pariahs. And “gesture politics” is football’s limit, because it isn’t quite the financially-impactful business it’s more egomaniacal leaders, past and present, have pretended. So it should gesture, two-fingered if required, every chance it gets.