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War in Ukraine: Football’s humanity tested through conflict

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has already tested the world's humanity, but what of football's? Hope, corruption, pride, morals; the war for the heart of football is one we can't ignore.

When Bill Shankly uttered his famous line about football, life and death, there wasn’t the paralysing backdrop of Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine. At the time, you could have been forgiven for chuckling at the exaggerated significance those of his ilk gave to a bunch of people kicking a ball around; it clearly wasn’t made flippantly, but his impassioned socialist tongue certainly brushed the side of his cheek.

Even the most emotional Shankly wouldn’t be able to sell his mantra today. At the time of writing, Russian forces have closed in on Kyiv after four intense days of missile launches, airstrikes, firefights and more. Tanks are rolling down the streets. Bombs are dropping. Planes are being shot down. Some citizens are fleeing on foot to reach the Polish border, with all flights and rail grounded. This aggression has been ordered by Vladimir Putin on the pretext of peacekeeping and preserving human rights for the self-proclaimed separatist Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine – two areas he has been angling to be given independence for years, but which are part of a sovereign independent nation. This is a war that has been ongoing for eight years, leaving millions of citizens living in uncertainty, fear and endless threats to their freedom to live.

“Football is the last thing on our minds. Our thoughts and prayers are with our friend, family, and the Ukrainian nation as a whole right now in withstanding this atrocious attack and repelling the aggressors that are invading… That’s the main thing on our minds right now, so it’s hard to think of anything else. We’re getting pictures and videos of bombs, guns, smoke… It’s horrifying. It’s almost unreal to see this going on; our loved ones are living through this.

“In terms of football, even if this is resolved tomorrow, and the attack is repelled and everything’s fine, there’s a treaty or whatever it is that happens to end this, I don’t think things are going back to normal immediately. There’s still the overhanging threat that something could happen again. It’s hard to say; what if there’s damage to stadiums, club infrastructure, or clubs get displaced like Zorya and Shakhtar – which is already bad enough – it’s going to make an even bigger mess of things. Hopefully that is not what happens, and not what it comes to. All we want to see is for this to end, for the aggressors to be repelled, for an end to this war; for an end to this ridiculous invasion of a sovereign, peaceful nation that is just trying to make its own history.”

Dynamo Abroad Podcast explained the haunting reality to Heart of Football on Friday.

The last few days alone have been sickening for anyone with a conscience, let alone for those with family, friends or compatriots caught in a bloody terror. It is strange how seemingly fleeting moments become sharpened into focus by events a world away in time and space, but there is one that now carries a haunting prescience.

One gloriously sunny day 10 years ago I was strolling through the centre of our Siberian hometown of Tyumen pushing my then-eight month old daughter Sophia in her pram. It was the ninth of May, when Russia celebrates Victory Day to mark the end of the Great Patriotic War (effectively the Soviet Union’s formal participation in World War II). The nearest equivalent in the UK would be Remembrance Sunday, but the atmosphere and focus could hardly be more different; it is a day of pride at the sacrifice which saw 28 million Soviets lay down their lives in the fight against the Nazi regime, with parades involving everyone from military backgrounds to local companies and groups. In Moscow the spectacle does take on a more regimented upscaled show of mawkish military muscle-flexing, but out here it carries a celebratory tone without spilling into jingoistic nationalism.

We crossed the road, and a total stranger – a veteran weighed down by medals pinned to her chest – smiled at Sophia, turned to my wife and I, then said: “I hope she never has to live through a war.” It was said with such warmth, an almost protective glow of heartfelt sincerity, that it has stuck with me ever since.

In the context of recent events, however, it has thrown a chilling shiver down my spine.

Where does football fit into the very human suffering that is unfolding before our eyes? As the Dynamo Abroad team explained, it is hard to countenance what is merely a game when the world teeters precariously on the edge of potential catastrophe, and yet to pretend football does not exist at all is to ignore something that for better or worse provides a reference point to millions of lives. Perhaps it is a sign of the modern age when sports stars and celebrities garner far more attention and respect than many politicians; a word one way or the other from a centre-forward can carry more weight than a Presidential speech.

Russian ice hockey legend Aleksandr Ovechkin has voiced his opposition to the conflict, while Andrey Rublev wrote “No War Please” on the TV camera after reaching the Dubai Tennis Championships Final. Fedor Smolov was the first Russian footballer to add his stance by posting a black square on his Instagram page with “Нет Войне!!!” [No War], a broken heart emoji and Ukrainian flag below. He made his second debut for Dynamo Moscow away to Khimki on Saturday; his new teammate, Ukrainian centre-back Ivan Ordets, was absent from the entire matchday squad, having been a cornerstone of the Russian Premier Liga leaders’ side.

There is a trend, however. When Ruslan Malinovsky scored in Atalanta’s Europa League win away to Olympiacos on Thursday and revealed the same message on a t-shirt in support of his compatriots, the message was naturally more powerful for obvious reasons. A hashtagged social media post here or there from countless sports figures will not silence any guns, or persuade a President to withdraw almost 200,000 troops from surrounding a sovereign nation. It is a ridiculous dichotomy that sport has thrust talented athletes into a limelight way out of orbit, and yet if they don’t post an Instagram-friendly message they are lambasted for not caring.

Ukrainian Ruslan Malinovsky expresses his solidarity with his homeland – but what about others? Is Social media posting enough?

Is it football’s fault that its meteoric popularity has forced its stars to take on more social responsibility – or at least be seen to – than they are perhaps capable of? Should football be removed entirely from socio-political machinations? The truth is the tired old saying that politics should be kept out of football has been a fallacy for decades; it simply isn’t possible to disentangle the two, however much people may wish it to be possible. Some could even argue it is an inevitable consequence of being the world’s most popular mass event. With the sickening levels of money involved, however, and dubious characters of those pulling the purse strings, questions have to be asked about how innocent the game’s organizers really are.

UEFA has been happy to take Gazprom’s millions for a decade as one of its key Champions League sponsors, but is reportedly on the verge of terminating their ₤33.5mn-a-year deal over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is far more than just a wealthy sponsor though. Gazprom’s Board chairman Aleksandr Dyukov just so happens to also be head of the Russian Football Union and also Russia’s UEFA Executive Committee representative, while Gazprom deputy chairman Aleksandr Medvedev is the current President of Zenit St. Petersburg – a position that Dyukov himself held for nine years. The company’s Chairman of the Management Committee, Alexey Miller, has served as acting chairman of Zenit’s board of directors, having previously worked under Vladimir Putin in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office and as Deputy Energy Minister, while hoovering up 11 honours and awards

Confused? Understandably. The main point is that ties between politics and sport are as fiercely interwoven here as anywhere, and cannot be ignored when considering UEFA’s relationship with the energy giant. FIFA President Gianni Infantino was awarded the medal of Friendship by Putin four years ago among a series of well-orchestrated public displays of affection around the 2018 World Cup. Infantino is yet to comment on whether he intends to return the award out of principle, despite being asked directly by a reporter.

Whatever the long-term future of the sport, the conflict has sparked a wave of direct influence on football’s short-term plans. UEFA were left with little choice but to strip St. Petersburg’s Gazprom Arena of the Champions League Final in May, and to force Russian and Ukrainian clubs and national teams to play at neutral venues for the foreseeable future. Unsurprisingly, Dyukov voiced his objections, but in reality just dug the hole a lot deeper.

“We believe that the decision to move the venue of the Champions League Final was dictated by political reasons. The Russian Football Union has always adhered to the principle of ‘sport is outside politics’, so we cannot support this decision.”

Aleksandr Dyukov – President of the Russian Football Union, UEFA ExCo member, and Gazprom board member

This is the same Russian Football Union, don’t forget, that before Dyukov’s appointment was headed by Vitaly Mutko, former Russian Minister for Sport appointed by Vladimir Putin, head of the 2018 World Cup Local Organising Committee, and yet another St. Petersburg State University graduate… just like Putin. Expecting people to take his ‘politics out of sport’ line seriously either requires stupidity or the assumption of stupidity.

The Ukrainian Premier Liha has been suspended too, and on this weekend’s first matchday of fixtures in Russia’s top flight, Rostov and Krasnodar matches have been postponed after their city airports were closed for all travel with missile strikes against airbases launched in the region.

Zenit have had to refute rumours that Ukrainian centre-back Yaroslav Rakitsky – who represented the displaced Shakhtar Donetsk before arriving in St. Petersburg three years ago – has had his contract rescinded. Before the full-on incursion of Russian troops began this week, he had an absolute shocker in the Europa League playoff round 3-2 home defeat to Real Betis, forcing his manager to sub him off at half time, before he was left out altogether for the return leg on Thursday. 

Rakitsky himself joined the throng of social media supporters for his countrymen, but even his own relationship with the conflict is a murky one. Back in 2014, when still a Shakhtar player, he voiced support for the separatist regions, even though their push forced his employers into an exile that lasts to this day, and left the Donbass Arena deserted. Cynics would argue his switching allegiance is a dark stain on his character, and adds weight to the accusations of insincerity behind social media support more broadly; others might argue he had no choice, or that he should be allowed to change his support after witnessing the extent of the horrors that unfolded for the best part of a decade.

On the ground right now, Ukrainian football is the last thing on the minds of anyone – even if it were possible to stage matches. Jonathan Campion is a writer, editor and cultural expert who has travelled extensively throughout the post Soviet space, and has experienced all sides of a divide widening currently at an alarming pace.

“In the long term, I can’t imagine a lot changing, and I think that’s for the best. The two countries’ clubs and national teams already don’t play against each other. Football makes people happy exactly because it takes their mind off their worries, so I hope games continue in Russia, and everywhere that it’s safe to hold them.

“Many, if not most, of the players in Russia and Ukraine are economic migrants, whose host countries are now at war. I hope that as few livelihoods as possible are ruined by this war, and football clubs are just part of this picture.

“For someone who grew up enthralled by the raucous Eastern European stadiums in the European Cup, going to matches in Ukraine was nothing like I imagined. A lot of the fans are couples or young families. I never saw or heard anything ugly. There has never been any day-to-day conflict between Ukrainians: Dynamo’s big rivalries – with Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist Kharkiv – are born out of a superficial sporting rivalry between Ukrainian cities. I was surprised how big the Kyiv/Kharkiv rivalry was – and then when the war in Donbas began in 2014, Dynamo and Metalist fans sang anti-Putin chants together.”

Writer Jonathan Campion on the atmosphere on the ground, and how it has changed

Next month’s World Cup qualifying playoff semi-final in Moscow has already been boycotted by Russia’s opponents Poland,  Sweden and the Czech Republic – Poland’s star striker Robert Lewandowski at least had the awareness to stress he didn’t apportion blame on the Russian people and players – with voices ringing out for Russia to be kicked out of the World Cup altogether. This is a World Cup, incidentally, to be hosted in Qatar; a country beset by horrific human rights abuse accusations and reports of thousands of migrant workers dying in appalling conditions just to build venues for the great and good of football.

But how deep do you go on the moralising of a host nation? Waging war against a sovereign nation, most would agree, is fairly solid grounds for removing rights. What about human rights? Formula One have cancelled the Sochi Grand Prix, which Sebastian Vettel had already decided to boycott, and yet Saudi Arabia – a country where homosexuals are punished by flogging, and journalists have been known to suffer torture and murder – remains on the schedule. Corruption? Germany hosted the 2006 World Cup on the back of Franz Beckenbauer’s alleged bribe to Qatar bid chief Mohamed Bin Hammam; a new FIFA law was brought in two years after the world governing body initiated an investigation into the claims that suddenly limited the statute of limitations to 10 years, leaving Beckenbauer free to escape trial. The German just so happens to have a very healthy relationship with Adidas, who have enjoyed a FIFA partnership going back decades.

US sanctions have swung into force against Russia, forcing the ruble into a temporary slump to its lowest level since 2016 and threats of removing the country from the SWIFT international banking network. Russian media has been muzzled, social media platforms have been crippled amidst a tit-for-tat war between regulators and American-run Big Tech platforms, while aerospace and energy industries have been slapped with embargoes.

One area of sanctions, however, will have a direct impact on football; Russian ownership of clubs. Roman Abramovich handed over “stewardship and care” of Chelsea to the trustees of Chelsea’s charitable foundation on Saturday. Quite what that entails is slightly unclear at this stage, although a complete detachment or sale of the club has not been officially confirmed, so suspicions will abound that he will retain influence by proxy.

Leaked Home Office court documents reported this week show that Abramovich paid for political influence, while the route for so many wealthy, influential Russian oligarchs to fast-track their way to UK visas has been removed. The so-called “golden visa” scheme encouraged uncountable wealth to pour into Britain with a less than thorough examination of how clean the wealth was. Perhaps more worryingly, the darker origins of the billions pouring into the UK may have been known, but simply overlooked.

Football finance expert Paul the Esk explained to Heart of Football how another oligarch’s Russian nationality may threaten a historic institution of English football.

“Russia’s invasion attempt of Ukraine in itself, is far more important than the fortunes of any football club. Yet Putin’s actions have unintended consequences at different levels of football.

The most obvious is Gazprom’s sponsorship of Schalke 04 and UEFA’s original plans to hold this year’s Champions League final in Putin’s home city of St Petersburg.

“Less obvious is the potential impact on one of the Football League’s founder members and one of the Premier League’s six ever-present clubs: Everton Football Club, 94% owned by a British-Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri. What has this to do with the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

“Farhad Moshiri happens to be the third largest shareholder of a Russian holding company, USM. USM has interests in many of Russia’s most valuable companies, notably Metalloinvest and Megafon. USM’s major shareholder is one of Russia’s wealthiest and most influential oligarchs, Alisher Usmanov. He happens to be a very close associate of President Putin.

“Everton, despite massive investment (£450 million) from Farhad Moshiri are heavily dependent on USM’s sponsorship and future naming rights contribution for an as yet, not totally funded £500 million-plus new stadium.”

Football finance expert Paul the Esk explains another potential sporting casualty of the conflict

Back in Russia itself, VTB and VEB banks have been included on the sanctions list; they both hold naming rights to stadiums of Moscow clubs in Dynamo and CSKA, with VTB alleged to have pumped in extortionate funding as Dynamo’s main sponsor, leaving the future of both clubs in uncertainty. 

Metallonivest have wide-reaching tentacles throughout Russia, not only in the epicentres of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Across the vast country there are endless ‘mono-cities’ that sprang up entirely on single industries over the Soviet era; a hefty vein of minerals discovered, and oilfield uncovered, and hey presto thousands of people populate a previously desolate village. 

Novotroitsk is one such place, nestled right on the border with Kazakhstan; rich nickel and titanium resources were discovered, and in the late 20th century had ballooned to a 100,000+ population. When Heart of Football visited three years ago to follow the football team – that were once managed by Manchester United winger Andrei Kanchelskis – against FC Tyumen, the definition of ghost town would have been generous. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the town had lost around 20% of its population as state-run mineral processing plants crumbled. Weeds grew through every corner. Street signs had been rusted over long ago, hand painted at best. The main square’s memorial to fallen soldiers was still covered in graffiti that nobody had been able, or bothered, to clean off. Once-grand mock pillars were grubby, crumbling and drifting away. 

Metalloinvest still prop up the vast majority of industry in a town nobody would have reason to remember, and pumped a ₤20mn into the city to reconstruct the main street last summer. Without them, the sadness and empty desolation of an unwanted, unneeded place would have slumped away from memory.

Sanctions against USM could, potentially, deliver the killer blow to communities that depend entirely on the investment of such a monstrously large entity. An over-dependence on few or singular resources is dangerous at the best of times of course; Europe has long been nervously reliant on Russia’s extensive gas and oil reserves, with Germany holding up licensing for the completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. With the energy supply crisis that has already engulfed the continent over the past few months, it is an impossible dilemma – continue to accept supplies from the key supplier whom world leaders are attempting to ostracise in the hopes of forcing peace, or plunge millions of citizens into even further short-term peril?

The effect of sanctions has that double-edged sword that could swing closer to home too. Everton stand to have their own immediate prospects cast into doubt if USM are blocked; while it may well be for a worthy moral cause, the scramble for replacement funding at a critical juncture in the club’s development will be testing.

And therein lies the rub for English football in particular. Sponsorship deals have exploded into unimaginable proportions based on similar principles of the government’s ‘Golden Visa’ plans; largest bidder wins, with a blind eye turned in many cases to where the bid comes from. What price morals in a cut-throat rat race to the top?

“Sanctions in the UK could easily put a stop to USM’s funding of Everton. Even if it didn’t, there’s the question of branding? Can the club afford to be associated with a business and owners who themselves are closely related to Putin and his oligarchs? More importantly and perhaps more pertinently, how do they fund their stadium without USM’s contribution?

“Football’s poor governance and willingness to accept funding from almost anyone despite their background, politics or reputation must at some point create a casualty. The events surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, whilst not caused directly by the sponsors of Everton Football Club, but by association with Putin, might just claim their first victim. Actions always have consequences.”

Everton and football as a broader sport must search their souls, argue Paul the Esk

As Campion told Heart of Football, the priority of sanctions may well need to be reassessed. 

“I think sanctions in football punish fans, not the people who should have no place in sport. There is a bigger picture: football sponsorship to companies like Gazprom is a drop in the ocean, and there is nothing sport can do to change or subdue them. And we shouldn’t be looking to sports executives to confront governments, or stop wars.”

Fans lose out when sanctions take hold of football, argues Jonathan Campion

The enjoyment of football fans obviously can’t come close to the very livelihood and peace of an entire sovereign nation under attack. The success of football clubs and tournaments don’t even register on the scale compared to the right to live without fear. 

How then to untangle politics from football? Relationships, partnerships, sponsorships and symbolic gestures are not new. These connections that envelop “the beautiful game” are no accident, but the way forward appears to have two uncomfortable paths; either hop out of bed with undesirable pots of gold into the embrace of others – anonymous crypto-currency startups have already been linked to criminal enterprises, while gambling companies already reach deep within football’s structure from media to clubs – or watch the game crumble without the crutch it built for itself. 

“In a world led by principles not money, I would have loved to see the Champions League final stay in St. Petersburg, with Russian and other European fans (and players) free to say and wear what they want. Oleksandr Zinchenko or Andriy Lunin lifting the cup in a very symbolic city, in front of a Gazprom logo, would be the strongest message to the world that football could send. But: money…”

Would the most effective method be to keep showpiece events to shine the spotlight on what needs to change? Jonathan Campion suggests it might.

Sometimes football can seem like the biggest part of people’s lives, and also the least significant at times of world crises. The moral compass of all who govern, follow and play the game will swing through this conflict, whether we like it or not. Should football be the most prominent platform for socio-political messages? Some would argue not. Rather than trying to sweep the sheer power and influence it wields in the modern world, for better of worse, under the rug, perhaps we should just admit that it should.


We would like to thank Paul the Esk, Jonathan Campion and the Dynamo Abroad Podcast for their heartfelt and expert insight.

If you are concerned about any friends, family or contacts who may be in danger in Ukraine, or would like to donate to their cause, here is a list of trustworthy humanitarian organisations.

When I was 12, my letter to United We Stand fanzine was published, and I will never forget the euphoric thrill of seeing my words in print. Two decades later I work as the Russian Premier League website's official English-language version from my home in Tyumen, Siberia. I have had my work published by When Saturday Comes, Four Four Two, These Football Times, The Guardian, The Football Pink, Futbolgrad and Russian Football News.

1 comment on “War in Ukraine: Football’s humanity tested through conflict

  1. Mike Barile

    Excellent analysis of current political dilemma for governance of global football. Well written 👍

    Like

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