Playing New Games Without Frontiers…

As we’re all too aware in our own small corner of the world, politics and sport can often be a toxic mix. But in the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine the combustion of sporting and politico-economic interests was inevitable.

George Orwell famously described sport as “war minus the shooting”. The same principle applies today with many governments using it as a propaganda weapon. But one thing which has changed massively since Orwell’s day is the lucrative multi-billion dollar business which sport has now become.

Sport (particularly football) and politics (and of course money) are inextricably linked in Russia. So as part of a wider programme of financial sanctions against Putin, sport has naturally featured quite heavily in the headlines.

We now know that no Russian (or Belarusian) athletes will participate the Winter Paralympics – following a dramatic u-turn by the International Paralympic Committee. The Gazprom Arena in St Petersburg will now not be hosting the prestigious Champions League final, nor will Spartak Moscow play any further part in the Europa League. The Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled and Formula 1 driver Nikita Mazepin – the son of a businessman with alleged links to Putin’s inner circle – has been sacked by the Haas F1 team. Closer to home Manchester United have abandoned their sponsorship deal with Aeroflot and the English Premier League has suspended match broadcasts to Russia.

All these actions in tandem with the broader financial sanctions may not exactly convince Putin in the short term to withdraw his troops from Ukraine, but will nevertheless mark a significant loss of vital revenue as well as a strong psychological blow to his regime.

And of course, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with alleged links to Putin has put the club up for sale and has had his assets frozen – and unfortunately for supporters – the club shop at Stamford Bridge is now closed.

The purchase of Chelsea in the first place, according to Russia expert Catherine Belton in her acclaimed book Putin’s People “had been aimed at building a beachhead for Russian influence in the UK”, with the Kremlin having “accurately calculated that the way to gain acceptance in British society was through its national sport” – amid claims that Putin had directed Abramovich to buy the club for this very reason. It was also allegedly part of a ploy to boost Russian influence within FIFA – a move which was to turn out particularly well from Putin’s point of view with Russia – in somewhat questionable circumstances – buying winning the bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

Soccer’s spineless and morally bankrupt international governing body FIFA (whose controversial president Gianni Infantino has a documented history of cosying up to Putin) has now finally caved in to pressure and banned Russia from all competitions until further notice, including the women’s Euros this summer (where having already qualified they look set to be replaced by Portugal) and the men’s World Cup – controversially due to be hosted by that traditional bastion of footballing excellence (and coincidentally conveniently petroleum-rich) state of Qatar later this year. It’s worth noting that FIFA had been reluctant to impose the ban, initially making the pathetic decision that Russia could compete under a neutral banner as some kind of Russian FA Select without flag or anthem – in much the same way as Russian athletes competed as the simply risible “Russian Olympic Committee” following the infamous doping scandal in the recent Winter Olympics – controversially hosted by China. But following the announcements made by the Polish, Czech, Swedish and later English football associations that their national sides would not be playing against Russia, FIFA was effectively forced into making a u-turn.

Sports business expert Professor Simon Chapman questions why such actions are only being conducted now rather than a decade or more ago when Putin’s forces were busy bombing Syria and annexing Crimea:

“However, sport’s eyes have been wide shut. Putin and the Kremlin don’t deal in rational economics. For them, sport has never been about the bottom line. Geopolitical economy sits at the heart of their decision-making; it’s about power and control.

As such, sport needs to learn a series of profound lessons from the last seven days. This is not the late 20th century anymore. With the influx of investments over the last two decades from countries and their governments, sport needs to up its game and start playing in a different way.”

As a pre-emptive strike in anticipation of the inevitable whataboutery in the comments section, I will acknowledge that there have been allegations of hypocrisy and double standards from various quarters who question why a number of other countries with histories of aggression and poor human rights records have not in recent years been dealt with in a similar way to Russia. But due to constraints of time and space this article will focus solely on the Ukraine-Russia situation.

Putting things into a historical perspective, the most high-profile sporting sanctions of recent times was possibly the banning of South African national teams from international sport due to its human rights abuses under the Apartheid system. As a result, the country was absent from seven sets of Olympic games from 1964 to 1988 and missed out on the first two rugby world cups in 1987 and 1991. The ultimate goal of these sanctions was finally achieved, although not without the help of a multitude of external factors and major changes in the geopolitical landscape.

Sporting sanctions and boycotts on their own won’t persuade Putin to pull his forces out of Ukraine, but hand in hand with wider financial punitive measures they can certainly have an impact on the Russian economy and the future political direction of its citizens. Disgruntled Russian soccer fans unhappy with the non-participation of their team in this year’s World Cup may choose to blame FIFA or the West – or perhaps even their own president. The latter scenario with the help of a few other developments may be his ultimate downfall.

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