Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has exposed cracks in European football that threaten multi-million dollar sponsorship deals and led to calls to move this season’s biggest game on the schedule, the League final champions, away from its planned host city, St. Petersburg.
UEFA, the governing body for football in Europe and the organizer of the Champions League, refused to give in to demands from some European countries to move the match, scheduled for May 29. The most vocal opposition to hosting Russia has come from Britain, which could provide one or both participants in the final. Last year’s final was between Premier League sides Manchester City and Chelsea. The latter belongs to a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich.
“I have serious concerns about sporting events due to be held in Russia, such as the Champions League final, and will discuss with the relevant governing bodies,” said Nadine Dorries, UK Minister for Sport. wrote on Twitter.
Liz Truss, Britain’s foreign secretary, told the BBC on Wednesday morning that she was opposed to the final taking place in St Petersburg.
UEFA said it was “constantly and closely monitoring the situation”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced sanctions against three more Russian billionaires on Tuesday as part of a series of measures targeting people close to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr Abramovich, an ally of the Russian leader, previously faced difficulties entering Britain after new visa restrictions were imposed on Russian businessmen in 2018.
There were no direct consequences for his investment in Chelsea, but Mr Johnson’s government has said it plans further action if Russia does not clamp down on its activities in Ukraine.
Fans of Everton, another Premier League side, are also facing an anxious wait. Its main sponsor, USM, is controlled by Alisher Usmanov, another Kremlin-linked Russian billionaire. Margaret Hodge, a British opposition Labor Party MP, told parliament that Mr Abramovich and Mr Usmanov should face sanctions, describing them as “kleptocrats who robbed the Russian people”.
The repercussions of the crisis have also reached Germany, where Gazprom, the Russian energy giant, has since 2007 been the sponsor of one of the country’s leading teams, Schalke. German sports leaders, politicians and fan groups have called for the deal to be terminated.
The club said in a statement that they would “monitor further developments, assess them and urgently call for peace – to protect those affected by the crisis”.
Gazprom is a major football sponsor, funneling millions of dollars to teams and, importantly, to UEFA through a long-standing business relationship. As a top partner, Gazprom’s logo is now a common sight in stadiums and on television during the Champions League, the club’s richest football tournament.
Gazprom has several other agreements in football, including with FIFA, the organizer of the World Cup. FIFA has not commented on its relationship with the company, or with Russia, since units of the Russian army under the leadership of Mr Putin moved against neighboring Ukraine.
However, it may have to be done soon: the Polish football federation on Tuesday demanded clarification on the status of a crucial World Cup qualifier against Russia due to be played in Moscow next month.