Written Volodymyr Solovian, Senior Analyst at HWAG/UCMC
Football is a game for millions. However, the interest of the masses turns the sport into a tool for achieving political goals.
Back in the 1930s, totalitarian regimes made football a hostage to their own doctrines. Putinism inherited the interest in football’s potential for propaganda from its ideological predecessors, Hitlerism and Stalinism. For years, the Kremlin has used football to promote a positive image of Russia.
Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine has led to sanctions by international sports bodies and Western political institutions to reduce Russia’s hybrid influence. As a result, Kremlin sponsors were denied access to international television broadcasts as well as advertising contracts with European clubs and football associations.
When it appeared that Russian football would be unable to remove this stain, FIFA and UEFA extended a “helping hand,” setting precedents for easing sanctions pressure. At the same time, the Kremlin interprets even the slightest easing of restrictions as evidence of the enemy’s weakness. Therefore, Moscow may start with sports to reclaim its lost ground in communication with the West.
An important element of the Kremlin’s information strategy is the “sport out of politics” campaign, in which propaganda persuades Western audiences that it is unfair for Russian football to be punished for the actions of politicians.
Football and propaganda in totalitarian regimes
The unity of football and politics is especially evident in the history of the most bloody totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, such as Nazi Germany and the USSR.
German football clubs, which, after the Nazis came to power, were the first to follow the prescriptions of the racial pseudo-theory, were patronized by the authorities and became showcases of Hitler’s ideas in the sports field. Historians date the last episode of Nazi propaganda’s use of football themes to November 22, 1942. On that day, Major General Friedrich Paulus reported to Hitler about the encirclement of his 280,000-strong army near Stalingrad. However, the Ministry of Propaganda of the Third Reich happily informed the German people only about the victory of the national team over the Slovak team with a score of 5-2. There was no mention of the situation on the Eastern Front.
In the Soviet Union, the party leaders also recognized the importance of football in influencing the mass consciousness. It is noteworthy that the first championship in the history of Soviet football started in the midst of the “Great Terror” in the spring of 1936. On July 6 of that year, as part of the parade of athletes on Red Square, an exhibition match was held, which was watched from the tribune of the Mausoleum by the country’s leadership, led by Joseph Stalin.
The world proletariat’s leader was uninterested in football, but he saw it as politically significant. At the height of Moscow’s conflict with the “Tito clique”, Soviet footballers were defeated by the Yugoslav national team in the Olympic 1/8 finals in 1952. The government reacted angrily, accusing the players of “undermining the prestige of Soviet sport and the Soviet state.” As a result, the punishment was relatively mild by Stalin’s standards: the CSKA team (a multiple USSR champion whose players formed the basis of the national team) was disbanded, and several players and the coach had their Honored Masters of Sports titles revoked.
Hitlerism and Stalinism were dictatorships of fear, so the harsh nature of that era did not escape football, as many players were repressed and sent to concentration camps or the Gulag system.
A Football match on Red Square (Dynamo Moscow vs. Spartak), 1936
Football in the ‘Putin-ist system’
Unlike the Nazis or the Bolsheviks, Putin was building a “dictatorship of deception” (as defined by political regime researchers Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman) based on information manipulation by 2022. Football is important in state propaganda in this paradigm, and its privileged position is protected by the state.
To begin with, the Kremlin saw football through the lens of influencing international audiences. Moscow has never been shy about spending money on image projects like the 2018 World Cup or European Cup finals. For over a decade, the Russian energy company Gazprom has funded the European (UEFA) and world (FIFA) football associations’ budgets. Since 2012 cooperation with Gazprom contributed up to 40 million euros to the UEFA budget each year (the agreement was terminated after the start of large-scale aggression against Ukraine).
The 2018 World Cup was, of course, the pinnacle of the Kremlin’s financial investments in football. Moscow spent a record-breaking $14.2 billion on organizing and hosting the competition (in comparison, Russia spent $48 billion on the 2014 Winter Olympics, an amount nearly equal to the Russian Federation’s annual military budget). At the same time, state propaganda lauded the tournament’s “best-ever” organization and Russia as a “hospitable and peaceful country.”
Throughout his rule, Putin has steadfastly followed the Caesarion custom of appeasing the crowd with “bread and circuses.” That is why the Russian state directly or indirectly sponsors and owns the vast majority of professional football teams.
Three types of ownership can be distinguished:
1) state-owned corporations at the federal level;
2) private investors;
3) local state-owned enterprises and governments/ministries of the subjects of the Federation.
Russian football’s state-administrative governance model has made it resistant to the initial economic blows associated with the war’s impact. However, as hostilities continue, the Kremlin’s priorities are shifting to militarism, and image projects in the field of sports is being steadily curtailed.
A death sentence for Russian football?
In 2022, Russian football clubs were on the verge of collapse as a result of Western sanctions.
The exclusion of Russian teams from European competitions, particularly the Champions League, dealt a powerful blow by depriving the top teams in the Russian championship of UEFA payments (a season in the most prestigious European tournament brought guaranteed $15-20 million + prize money to the clubs’ coffers).
Second, sanctions imposed on Russia’s banking system hampered player transfers (sale or purchase) from foreign clubs. Chelsea of London, for example, was unable to make a payment for Dynamo Moscow’s Arsen Zakharyan, whose value was estimated at 15 million at the time. As a result, Russian clubs lost a significant source of revenue.
Third, as a result of the outbreak of a large-scale war, FIFA changed its player transfer regulations, allowing foreign players playing for Russian teams to suspend their existing contracts and sign agreements with foreign clubs. As a result, Russian officials missed out on the opportunity to profit from the sale of players who used this option to leave the local championship.
This graphic illustrates the growing tide of problems for Russian football. It shows the fluctuations in the market value of the roster (all first team players) of the three leading Russian clubs over the past ten years: Zenit (blue), CSKA (green), and Spartak (gray).
As we can see, the sanctions pressure resulting from the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas in 2014 led to a gradual decline in interest in football on the part of state-owned corporations. The years of prosperity are over, and football was one of the first to be “optimized.” The decline ended at the turn of 2016-17, when the system received a powerful injection – the World Cup. However, the covid pandemic soon dealt a powerful blow. As of now, the war and new sanctions are only beginning to tighten the noose. Obviously, it will be disastrous, given the Russian economy’s militarization and shifting priorities for the use of state resources.
How Russia is trying to return to international football
Russia is attempting to impose the thesis of “sport beyond politics” on Western audiences by exploiting the current situation. The goal is to discredit the sanctions mechanism and create a schism between national football federations over the issue of Russia’s return to big sport, in addition to returning its representatives to international competitions.
Moscow enjoys full favorable treatment in international football governing bodies. The fact that UEFA and FIFA are holding direct negotiations with Russia within a specially created working group on the conditions for the resumption of Russian clubs’ participation in competitions under the auspices of these organizations is telling. This situation directly contradicts the assurances that Russia’s disqualification will last “until the end of the war.” In addition, UEFA and FIFA continue to take an ostrich position on the issue of punishing Russia for the destruction of Ukrainian football infrastructure and the deaths of athletes, including children. Moreover, UEFA has been “studying” the situation with Russia’s violation of the ban on the participation of Crimean football teams in official tournaments for two months without any results (this season, teams from Sevastopol and Yalta started in the Second League of the Russian Federation).
Against this backdrop, the Russian press announces the impending return of Russian football teams to international and European tournaments on a regular basis. It has a history of using deception and forgery. One of the most recent examples is a series of publications detailing Moscow’s “attempts” to fire the head of the Ukrainian Football Association, Andriy Pavelko, who successfully prevented Russian football teams from competing in European tournaments, and replace him with a well-known football player and former national team coach, Andriy Shevchenko. The latter’s friendship with Putin’s oligarch Roman Abramovich is meant to soften Ukraine’s stance on suspending Russian clubs. The fact that this incredible fiction was published by Marca, Spain’s most famous sports newspaper, is significant.
Is it possible to rehabilitate Russia through football?
Despite the declarative condemnation of the war, the desire to keep Russian football afloat prevails in the offices of European football officials.
The following factors indicate this:
- Russian clubs have generally adapted to the restrictions on banking transactions. Payments for players are made through the Russian Raiffeisen Bank or a subsidiary of the Hungarian OTP Bank, which have not been sanctioned by the West and continue to operate in Russia.
- Schemes of conversion into other currencies are also used (transit of funds through third countries, as a rule, transfers from Russia are allowed. Serbia or Latin America) or the services of intermediary agents are used. This practice allows Russian clubs that are part of the ownership structure of sanctioned companies or oligarchs to earn considerable money by selling players to European clubs.
- The results of the summer transfer window of 2023 show that a number of European clubs continue to maintain commercial ties with their Russian “partners” despite the sanctions imposed by national governments and the European Union. The total amount received by Russian clubs from representatives of the EU champions as part of transfers (sale of player rights) and lease agreements is at least EUR 25 million. Real Sociedad (Spain), Torino, Bologna (Italy), and Clermont (France) made payments to Russian clubs for the player’s contract. Espanyol (Spain), Hamburg, Union Berlin (Germany), Lecce (Italy), Clermont (France), Panathinaikos, Aris (Greece), Aarhus (Denmark) signed loan agreements with Russians, Ferencvaros (Hungary), Sparta Prague (Czech Republic), Kortrijk, Molenbeek (Belgium), Nijmegen (Netherlands), Blackburn Rovers (United Kingdom), Stal Melec (Poland) signed loan agreements with Russians.
- FIFA has recently loosen the rule under which legionnaire players can unilaterally suspend contracts with Russian clubs. The organization has also allowed a women’s refereeing team from Russia to officiate the match between the women’s national teams of Armenia and Kazakhstan, which will take place on September 26 in Yerevan. This is the first precedent for the involvement of Russian referees in international matches since March 2022.
- Russian officials continue to hold various administrative positions in UEFA. For example, 15 russians will work in the organization from 2023 to 2027, including Alexander Dyukov, CEO of Gazprom Neft and head of the Russian Football Union, who is a member of the UEFA Executive Committee.
- These symptoms can be interpreted as the desire of European football officials to “reserve” russia’s position in the hierarchy of the sport until better times. Thus, the death sentence for russian football is postponed indefinitely.
– The Putin regime systematically uses the popularity of football as part of its soft power toolkit. The Kremlin has turned football events into a means of imposing a positive image and popularizing Russia. The corruption of international football governing bodies contributed to these practices.
– The full-scale attack on Ukraine has led to Moscow’s loss of positions in the European football system. The reorientation of the Russian economy to the military rails calls into question the financial stability of most Russian clubs. In these circumstances, the position of FIFA and UEFA is particularly controversial, turning a blind eye to the gross violations of football law by Russia, including the inclusion of Crimean clubs in the national system of their championships.
– Despite the sanctions, which mean the disqualification of the Russian national team and club football from international sports, most representatives of the global football bureaucracy do not share the thesis that Russian football is responsible as an integral part of the aggressor state. This creates the preconditions for imitating the ability to negotiate with the West, using sports as an example. This is exactly the scenario the Kremlin wants to implement in the political arena, so football diplomacy is a testing ground for strategies to end the hot phase of the conflict on terms favourable to Moscow.