On December 4, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino announced that clubs based in the disputed peninsula of Crimea – a region of Ukraine annexed and claimed by Russia earlier this year – would not be allowed to compete in Russian domestic competition. Following a much earlier declaration that Crimean sides would not be permitted to take part in European tournaments, the declarations appeared to lay out a firm position in line with the United Nations, European Union, United States and almost every government the world over – Crimea is occupied territory.
However, to applaud UEFA for a show of strength and moral fortitude is to ignore the detail of the announcement. When UEFA banned the three Crimean clubs from Europe in an earlier proclamation – an announcement many in Ukraine saw as coming too late to be worthwhile – the move was seen as entirely empty. The decision affected just three clubs, all of which had been hastily reformed in the third, regional tier of Russian football, and excluding the possibility of an unlikely and almost certainly rigged cup run, none of SKChF Sevastopol, TSK Simferopol or Zhemchuzhina Yalta were likely to be troubling the top flight, let alone Europe, any time soon.
Thursday’s message, therefore, would appear more practical. The three clubs – and indeed any future teams established on the disputed peninsula – have been ruled out of any further competition in the Russian domestic calendar, forcing them to withdraw midway through a season which sees them sit in the lower reaches of the Second Division South’s rearranged tables, the league split into two groups to accommodate both the extra Crimean sides and a number of fallen giants that have slipped out of the national First Division. Zhemchuzhina and SKChF prop up the table, while TSK sit a more respectable 5th. The removal of the trio will have little effect on the remainder of the season, bar reducing travel costs for other sides in the league.
The only other competition available for the teams to enter was the domestic cup, which saw the Yalta and Simferopol sides knocked out in the very first round. While the Sevastopol representative made it to the fourth phase – requiring penalties in the second round and extra time in the third – any hint of a fairytale, stage-managed cup triumph was swiftly ended with a comfortable 2-0 defeat at home to Volgar Astrakhan in the round of 64. With all three teams safely out, their ban means nothing for the current season.
Beyond the unhelpful timing of the announcement, the content itself must also be questioned. Removing three irrelevant teams with very few supporters – only SKChF average more than 1,000 supporters per match in a poorly-attended league – is at least the correct decision if poorly planned, but the reasoning UEFA has given does little to assure the wider community, and specifically the Ukrainian FA, any indication that European football’s governing body is prepared to impose any meaningful sanctions against Russia.
While on the one hand, UEFA’s refusal to be drawn into the geopolitical struggle between Russia and Ukraine is admirable, their meek compromise is not. Rather than stick to the globally-approved message that Crimea remains Ukrainian territory – even if an escape from Russian hands seems incredibly unlikely in the near future – UEFA has chosen to draw on its own technicalities to defend the decision, and even then has done so weakly.
The central reason behind the exclusion of the Crimean triumvirate from the Russian leagues, is that football clubs may not switch federations without the agreement of both governing bodies. Therefore, as Ukraine objected to the transfer of the three clubs – which all argue they are new entities registered this year under Russian supervision – UEFA cannot allow them to compete.
However, that it has taken several months of a league season, and indeed a complaint from Ukraine – UEFA would presumably not have acted if left alone – sends out a clear message: the issue is either unimportant, or UEFA is unwilling to risk upsetting the Russian FA and, perhaps more tellingly, its government. This is perhaps most evident in Mr Infantino’s telling statement that for footballing purposes, Crimea would be designated as ‘a special zone.’ At no point has UEFA explicitly stated a belief that Crimea is either Ukrainian or Russian, simply that it is disputed – something they have the power to act decisively over, at least in their domain.
Football’s governing body may hide behind the fact that technically, according to the UN, the Crimean clubs fall foul of the Russian Second Division’s own rules – which state no foreign national can compete in the third tier – but the fact is irrelevant, as the Russian government of course no longer considers Crimean footballers, politicians or street sweepers anything but Russian, and so while a law clearly exists to prevent Zhemchuzhina, SKChF and TSK competing, UEFA have chosen to deliberately blur the lines by first taking an inordinate length of time over the issue, and then failing to give clarity at their own conclusion.
The conspiracy theorists in the crowd, and there are an increasing number given the ongoing row over the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, will point to UEFA’s increasingly close connection with Russian state energy giant Gazprom, which not only backs Russian flagship club Zenit and German giant Schalke, but also has significant sponsorship deals with the Champions League and future international events. With Gazprom, Zenit – who have already been hit by Financial Fair Play regulations – and the Russian government so closely linked, it is easy to see why Michel Platini and his subordinates would be worried about upsetting or even scaring off a partner which brings so much money to UEFA’s table. Come down hard over Crimea, and Russia may choose to plough its footballing funds into other markets – Central Asia, perhaps, where soft power institutions remains from the Soviet era.
Conversely, it can be argued that the UEFA/Gazprom agreement is as beneficial to the Russian state than to European football, and that it is indeed Russia, with racism and corruption again the buzzwords as the World Cup cycle begins again, which should be keeping its head down to avoid risking a loss of business. If this is the case, then UEFA’s response to the Crimean situation, while not corrupt or self-interested, is at best weak, slow and ultimately futile. Given Russian football’s tendency to throw up both controversy and phoenix clubs by the handful, it would be no surprise if this is not the last of the Crimean issue at European football’s top table. UEFA’s next response will be very telling indeed.