Russia and Ukraine are currently locked in a battle of geopolitical wills, a crisis which not only has to potential to escalate into a campaign of war, but which is drawing in an increasing number of foreign powers by the day. The US, EU and NATO have all urged Russian withdrawal from the Crimea region, while the might of the Chinese has been lent to the Russian plan to occupy eastern parts of Ukraine with ‘self-defence’ troops. Following the revolution in Kyiv and overthrow of Viktor Yanukovich, it is difficult to see a solution which would be welcomed by the majority of Ukrainian people.
The country does not wish to be amalgamated back into a Russian empire – a situation it found itself in for much of its recent history. Nor, however, is there huge clamour to join NATO, with the calls for continued non-alignment going largely ignored by the two sides threatening to rip the state – young in nature but rich in history – in two.
Yet unity in a country which has been described by some as a geographical construct – a concept more than a nation, with differing identities held in different regions – is almost impossible, and the lazy answer of unification with Russia would appease none but the most ambitious of Putin’s imperialist advisors. While politically, such an aim would never be admitted to, in the sporting sphere it has been Gazprom – effectively a state ministry such is the nature of its ownership structure – which has been leading the way.
Now a major player in European football – backing the likes of Red Star Belgrade, Schalke 04 and Deportivo Tachira as well as flagship Russian side Zenit – that holds the prestigious position of chief UEFA Champions League sponsor, Gazprom has worked its way into a position of genuine financial influence. While it is unsure how much the Russian energy empire affected FIFA’s decision to award the 2018 World Cup to its homeland, the theory runs that by pouring increasing revenue streams into the Champions League, Alexei Miller, his Gazprom colleagues and indeed the Russian state, will be able to dictate to football’s governing bodies and threaten to pull the plug if they fail to comply.
The first test of this theory was due to be the United Championship – a Gazprom brainchild conjured up in the wake of Zenit being handed a 3-0 technical defeat to Dinamo after Anton Shunin was hit by a flare – masterminded by the unlikely duo of Miller and Valeri Gazzaev, and an ambitious project designed to combine the Russian and Ukrainian pyramids to form a superleague with a budget to rival any competition in the world. Projected incomes and prizes were beyond belief, but with the bulk of clubs enticed by the money on offer – most would otherwise fall short of Financial Fair Play regulations – momentum gathered rapidly.
However, events in Ukraine over the winter have brought plans to tie the two countries together to a shuddering halt. In the summer break of 2013, less than subtle hints at a future tournament were made before UEFA and FIFA had weighed in on the issue, with a four-team mini-league taking place between Zenit, CSKA, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk, even going as far as to label the competition the United Tournament.
Fast forward six months, and the clubs found themselves in a very different situation. Over the winter, the second edition of the tournament – this time labelled the G-Drive United Supercup was transplanted to Israel rather than the teams’ home cities, partly due to the EuroMaidan revolt in Kyiv and partly due to the temperatures, and Dynamo were left out of the party. Perhaps symbolically, perhaps not wishing to stoke the fires of revolution in Kyiv, it was two teams from the Ukrainian east – Shakhtar and Metalist Kharkiv, both with sizeable Russian-speaking populations, that joined the fun, the former taking the title in the absence of the champions.
As if the exclusion of Ukraine’s symbolic club did not do enough damage to the potential for a combined league system, the harsh realities of football in the two countries was further highlighted when Metalist, long regarded as the only realistic rivals to the Dynamo-Shakhtar duopoly in the Ukrainian league, found themselves floundering on the edge of bankruptcy. their players unpaid for months and able to leave after their former president upped and left in the wake of the upheaval. Now headed up by Sergei Kurchenko but without long-serving manager Myron Markyvich, their future seems more stable, but the warning signs are there.
What next then, for Gazprom’s attempt to combine the football leagues of two countries deemed by many to be on the brink of war. Of course, should Ukraine fall once again entirely within the Russian sphere of influence, such a move would be possible, but would be ill-advised, providing a perfect avenue for protests and mass unrest to find common ground.
A more likely outcome would be for the clubs from the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine to signal their intent to join Miller’s project, taking with them three of the country’s top four sides – Shakhtar, Metalist and Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. This too would be difficult logistically, and although Russian identity grows stronger in the east of the country, the decision to formalise those ties would be no means unanimous nor necessarily accepted by the international community.
It seems then, the the United Championship is dead in the water, an ambitious attempt at re-unification thwarted by political belligerence and outmoded methods of international relations. The closest Gazprom seem able to resurrect their plan would be to prop up a Sevastopol team within the Russian system, although even this assumes that Crimea will be allowed to once again be absorbed into the greater Russian state.
From a romantic point of view, the failure is a little disappointing – the nostalgia and sense of adventure connected with the old Soviet Top League has been a key part of the tournament’s draw – yet from a sporting one it is almost certainly for the best. The money mentioned was unrealistic, the distances for fans and teams to travel would be preposterous, and it would all but kill off the sport outside the elite band of teams. It is only a shame, therefore, that is has taken the two countries to come to the brink of war before reason won out.