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25th Feb 2022

In indulging Vladimir Putin, football must accept its part in Ukraine’s horror

Simon Lloyd

Make no mistake, football has played a part in this – if only a small one

It’s barely been 48 hours, yet we have already absorbed enough to understand the magnitude of what is unfolding not even 1,500 miles away.

Gridlocked traffic attempting to flee Kiev for the safety of the Polish border. Heart-wrenching footage of a sobbing father bidding farewell to his young daughter. The defiant last stand of 13 Ukrainian guards on Zmiinyi Island, telling the crew of the Russian warship that would soon take their lives to go and fuck themselves when asked to surrender.

War is here, now – on our continent – and the sense that the bloodshed is only just beginning is palpable.

Events like this tend to put things sharply into perspective. Anyone who’s watched even an hour’s worth of the rolling news coverage over the past couple of days could be forgiven for asking themselves how sport and all the petty rivalries that come with it could ever mean so much to anyone. People are dying already, millions have effectively been made homeless. We’re reminded that, in the grand scheme of things, sport doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – really matter.

And yet, even before the first tank tracks had rolled across the border and onto Ukrainian soil earlier this week, the issue of how imminent war in Europe might impact sport – namely football – were still deemed important enough to make a few headlines. Most of it centred on the Champions League final, European club football’s showpiece event, scheduled to be held in St Petersburg in three months’ time. As western powers threatened to impose unprecedented sanctions on President Putin, football, surely, would follow suit.

The game has been moved to Paris now, but the fact it had been due to take place at the Gazprom Arena, which also played host to several games at Euro 2020 last summer, served as a prominent reminder of Russia’s strong presence in elite European football. Gazprom are a Russian state-owned energy corporation which, for the last decade, have pumped over £30m a year into UEFA to have their branding splashed all over the biggest football games the continent has to offer. Nobody – not Aleksander Ceferin nor anyone else at UEFA – seemed to have any problem with such arrangements, at least until now.

The important point to mention here is the one overlooked by many in the last week: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t start just before dawn on Thursday morning. This is merely the latest wave after Russian forces entered and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014. The West did little but to urge Ukraine not to retaliate on that occasion. Football, too, turned the other cheek. Not just UEFA, but FIFA as well.

There was never so much as a mention of Russia being stripped of its World Cup in the four years between the invasion of Crimea and the first game of the tournament. Instead, FIFA President Gianni Infantino was content to sit beside and share jokes with Vladimir Putin (and Mohammed bin Salman) at the opening ceremony in Moscow, then again at the final a month later. The pair appeared close, so much so that Infantino was given the Order of Friendship medal by Putin the following year.

FIFA and UEFA, for what it’s worth, both condemned Russia’s latest military invasion in Ukraine in statements released on Thursday. Later in the day, Infantino was pressed on his relationship with Putin by Rob Harris of the Associated Press. He dodged the question when asked if he would relinquish the Order of Friendship medal, instead trotting out exactly the sort of hollow, cliched guff about how football has the power to unite that you would expect.

It is, of course, too late now. Clearly, this is far bigger than Infantino and any sporting governing body and fingers of blame for how Europe got here, facing what is potentially its largest war since the end of the Second World War, can be pointed in plenty of other directions before at them. Make no mistake though – they have played a part, if only a small one.

For over a century, political parties and nation states from across the world have been eager to align themselves with sport and the prestige of hosting its major events and tournaments. Putin, too, knows the value of this, and in handing him some of the biggest games and tournaments, in accepting tens of millions of sponsorship from his state-owned energy corporation, in posing for photographs alongside him, football has indulged him.

Blinded by its own greed, it has given him the platform he craved, helping legitimise him and mask some of the actions that have led to this troubling juncture.

As many Western leaders hastily prepare sanctions and question if they could have done more to avoid this, so too, must football.

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