The current situation in Ukraine put the geopolitical world on edge. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on the neighboring country stymied peace in Europe.
While the issues are far more important than soccer, the ramifications carry over into sport. After all, competitions like the UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Euros bring millions of Europeans together surrounding one goal.
As part of those competitions with players across the continent, players and clubs from Russia and Ukraine face an unprecedented reality. Then, at the core of that, UEFA and FIFA face decisions that carry consequences extending beyond the friendly game of soccer.
The debate as to who truly suffers from these decisions rages. As things stand, FIFA and UEFA must decide how the Russian national team plays out its upcoming World Cup Qualifiers. Early reports show FIFA preparing to expel Russia from the World Cup if the situation does not improve. Of course, that would mean Poland would likely get an automatic advancement in the ‘Path B’ route in the second round of UEFA World Cup Qualifying.
Moreover, UEFA must soon make a decision on the Russia women’s national team. Russia is in group C of the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 along with Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
While peace is the ultimate goal, sports certainly plays a role in reaching that target. The aim of FIFA and UEFA is likely to create unrest within Russia. With the power of President Putin, time will tell how successful that plays out.
Still, it is important that federations, individual nations and clubs and, of course, players voice their opposition to a senseless war. Even if it leads to cancelations or suspensions, the greater good should prevail.
How the Russian invasion impacts global soccer
Players in Ukraine
One of the most compelling and saddening occurrences as a result of Russia’s invasion is the impact on people. Civilians stuck in major cities like Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kherson share videos detailing the suffering.
This trend extends into the soccer world. Shakhtar Donetsk, one of Ukraine’s most dominant sides and a frequent player in the UEFA Champions League, is in the thick of the struggle. Unfortunately, players from the club struggle to find refuge fleeing the city’s combat. Thirteen Brazilian players representing the Ukrainian side crammed into busses along with dozens more just to escape Ukraine.
Pedrinho, a 23-year-old Brazilian playing for Shakhtar Donetsk, discussed the traumas of his departure from the country and the ensuing fear for him, his family and his teammates.
“The hardest thing was everything we saw on the road: people dying, people that had nothing to do with this situation.”
“What I most want now is to be with my family, with my parents. I said goodbye to them every time we spoke because I did not know if it would be the last time we would talk.”
Moreover, the conflict impacts players outside of the country. The most obvious of those are Ukrainian players across Europe. Many clubs understand the difficulties of their players. Take West Ham United’s Andriy Yarmolenko. The Ukrainian, originally born in St. Petersburg, Russia, received time away from the club with the situation unfolding. Rather than sulking, Yarmolenko flew to Poland to get his family, refugees fleeing Ukraine.
Then, other players across Europe, namely Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Everton’s Vitaly Mykolenko embraced before the two sides played on February 26. Atalanta’s Ruslan Malionvskiy and Benfica’s Roman Yaremchuk wore shirts opposing the Russian invasion of their home country and the impact on global soccer.
These Ukrainian players reflect the human element of these wars. More so, they display the resiliency of Ukrainians at large.
With the turmoil engulfing the country, it is no surprise that Ukrainian sides have had their seasons upended. The Ukrainian Premier League, the domestic competition for Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv, suspended its season when the Ukrainian government imposed martial law. Both sides finished bottom of their group in the UEFA Champions League, meaning UEFA did not make any decisions regarding Ukrainian teams.
However, UEFA did ban Spartak Moscow from the Europa League. One major way the Russian invasion impacts global soccer came in a joint agreement between UEFA and FIFA. The agreement banned all Russian sides from continental and international competitions.
For what it is worth, Spartak Moscow called the decision “expected,” while also hoping for a “speedy achievement of peace that everybody needs. That being said, Spartak said the decision by UEFA and FIFA is upsetting.
“We believe that sport, even in the most difficult times, should aim to build bridges, and not burn them. We are forced to obey a decision that we do not agree with,” a statement from the club read.
Outside of Spartak’s European dismissal, leagues across the world continue to roll on. Seemingly unanimous support for Ukraine persists across Europe. Benfica supporters moved Roman Yaremchuk to tears while coming on as a substitute.
Also, it is interesting to see individual teams pull out of contracts with Russia. Schalke, who remains in 2. Bundesliga, canceled its long partnership with Russian gas and energy company Gazprom. Gazprom was the main kit sponsor for Schalke since 2007. A state-owned corporation, Gazprom was a major sponsor with UEFA, including for the 2024 European Championship, scheduled to take place in Germany.
The sale of Chelsea and Roman Abramovich
However, the most powerful story to emerge specifically in the soccer world is that of Chelsea and its owner, Roman Abramovich. With the UK threatening to freeze the Russian’s assets, Abramovich became forced to sell the team.
Originally, Abramovich aimed to retain ownership, but distance himself from the club by handing over operation to the Chelsea Foundation’s leaders. However, due to a number of reasons, Chelsea is now practically up for sale.
For the Blues, it is unfortunate, albeit likely necessary. Since Abramovich took over in the early 2000s, Chelsea emerged as one of the most dominant teams in England, and that showed in Europe. The 2012 and 2021 UEFA Champions League winners also picked up five Premier League titles under Abramovich’s reign.
Chelsea fans will remember him as a legend, propelling the club into greatness. It is an unceremonious end to his time in London brought about by his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
The Premier League welcomes the impending sale of Chelsea. EPL Chief Executive Richard Masters wants to avoid the uncertainty that could unfold if the UK government targets Abramovich in financial sanctions.
Back in 2003, Abramovich paid just £140,000, roughly $350 million. In the sale, he seeks $4 billion, clearly a strong return on investment. He also mentioned he will not demand the club to repay his loans of roughly $2 billion that Chelsea owes. Finally, he says that net proceeds of the sale will go towards all victims of the Ukraine crisis.
At the beginning of the current season, Abramovich likely dreamt of welcoming Chelsea to another Champions League Final, this time in his home country. St. Petersburg’s Krestovsky Arena, also known as, fittingly, Gazprom Arena, was supposed to host the 2022 Champions League Final.
However, in one of the first sporting sanctions handed out by UEFA, St. Petersburg and Russia lost that honor. UEFA moved the Final to the Stade de France in Paris.
Similarly, Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic refused to play Russia in the ‘Path B’ route of UEFA World Cup Qualifying. In order to appease these three nations, FIFA and UEFA suspended Russia from competition in the World Cup. Meanwhile, Ukraine still has the opportunity to qualify via ‘Path A,’ as of early March.
Russia plans to submit an appeal, but it seems more likely that FIFA and UEFA will side with the other three teams in Russia’s qualifying bracket.
The Russian invasion impacts global soccer in a variety of ways. The suspensions and sanctions in sport handed to Russia are meant to quell the unprovoked attack.
Perhaps the displeasure domestically from Russians will create enough of a stir for Putin to redact his military advancements. The economic sanctions from across the world on Russia put the Russian economy dangerously low. In fact, the Russian ruble is worth less than one American cent.
Sports plays a key role in the social landscape of geopolitics. At the end of the day, the hope is that this Russian invasion of Ukraine subsides and the causalities are minimal.
Soccer may just be a game, but it is the world’s game, unifying billions. Now, it is needed more than ever to fill that role.
Photo credit: LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images
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