Football’s Role on the Geopolitical Frontline of Russia’s Conflict with Ukraine
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Football’s Role on the Geopolitical Frontline of Russia’s Conflict with Ukraine

This article was originally published on Glory.

Football for the Russian government and its allies is merely the means to geopolitical ends, rather than an end in itself. Scoring goals is only of secondary importance to the power and influence that investing football can bring.

Oleg Blokhin, from Communist Icon to Ukrainian Football Legend

When watching football, there’s always at least one member of a team who lodges themselves in your mind. This can happen for many reasons: their blatant antagonism of opposing fans, the personal battle they had during a game with a rival player; perhaps even their haircut or the way they wore their socks.

One such player who became lodged in my mind was Oleg Blokhin, who played for the Soviet Union between 1972 and 1988. He was a great centre-forward, winning the Ballon d’Or in 1975 – he scored 122 points to secure the award, ahead of Franz Beckenbauer (42 points) and Johan Cryuff (27 points). Blokhin was that good!

His apparent dominance at the time appeared to position Blokhin as a rival communist icon to cool contemporaries such as Sweden’s Ralf Edström and England’s Kevin Keegan. However, unlike Keegan and his Brut aftershave adverts, for a young football fan like me Blokhin was more mysterious – a player one encountered infrequently (there was, of course, no social media, and very limited coverage of international matches on television).

In those Cold War days during which popular media coverage of people living behind the Iron Curtain framed them as a threat and a menace, one sensed that the likes of Oleg Blokhin were not to be trusted. Indeed, as a youngster for me he always served as a potent symbol of the communist Soviet Union. However, although I didn’t know it at the time, I eventually found out that actually Blokhin is from Kyiv.

He continued playing until 1990, by which time the fall of communism was underway. Indeed, by 1991, the Soviet Union had started to splinter initially becoming the Commonwealth of Independent States. One of the states that chose to break-away was Ukraine, which is where Blokhin was born, raised and played much of his football.

In a 19-year career spent playing there, Blokhin turned-out more than 400 times for Dynamo Kyiv. Upon his retirement as a player, he then twice managed the Ukrainian national team. He coached the independent nation’s team to its first major tournament – the 2006 FIFA World Cup – and returned in 2011 to take charge of the national team during Ukraine’s co-hosting (with Poland) of the 2012 UEFA European Championships.

Things didn’t really work out for Ukraine that year, the team lost to both France and England and exited at the group stage of the tournament. Both defeats came in matches staged in Donetsk – a name now etched in the minds of many people across the world, though for very different reasons than Oleg Blokhin’s name has stayed in mine. Indeed, Donetsk’s Donbas Arena now stands as a symbol of what Ukraine aspired to be, and the state it now finds itself in.

On the stadium’s opening night in 2009, Beyonce performed a show as part of her ‘I Am…’ tour. Subsequently, it became the home of Shakhtar, one of Ukraine’s leading football teams, with the likes of Fernandinho (later of Manchester City), former Chelsea and Arsenal star Willian, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (first of Manchester United and then of Arsenal) all playing for the club.

After the 2012 Euros, Blokhin went back to coaching Dynamo Kyiv, his last job in management. When he left in 2014, Ukraine was a very different country even to the one that had staged the Euros only two years earlier. Political issues had been rumbling for years, though the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych during the pro-European Union ‘Revolution of Dignity’ was a tipping point.

Ukraine/Russia Relations in the Light of Russian Sport Diplomacy

Whether coincidental or as a deliberate Ukrainian act, Yanukovych’s removal from office in 2014 took place during Russia’s staging of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Within weeks after the Games had ended, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. Simultaneously, an armed conflict arose in the Donbas region, with Russian backed separatists attacking Ukrainian government forces.

Amongst the immediate casualties of this conflict were more than 300 people who were onboard a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane, which was shot down by Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. A month after this attack, in August 2014, the Donbas Arena was damaged by artillery shelling. This resulted in Shakhtar Donetsk having to quit the venue and play its matches 600 miles to the west, in Lviv.

In the eyes of many people, Russia was rapidly becoming an unfit host for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Indeed, a present day reappraisal of the country’s hosting of the tournament might see it cast as a classic example of what we now call sport washing. As bloody battles raged in Ukraine’s Donbas region, many of those who visited Russia for football’s biggest national team tournament were charmed by the welcome and reassured by its safety and security.

However, the foundations of Vladimir Putin’s decision that Russia would eventually invade Ukraine were established long before Hugo Loris of France lifted the winner’s trophy in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Many Russian’s – including Putin himself – have spent the last 3 decades asserting Russia’s right to sovereignty over Ukraine . Indeed, there have been numerous other episodes that served as a portent of things to come.

Russian Gaz Industry and Football Diplomacy

One of these was a gas battle involving the two countries which erupted during the mid-2000s, in a dispute about distribution networks and financial recompense. Russia is one of the world’s largest natural gas producers, which has resulted in the country supplying numerous European countries. In Austria, at one time more than 80% of its gas was supplied by Russia; in countries like Poland and Germany, the figure was around 50%. Furthermore, at its peak, 80% of Russian gas supplied to the Europe was distributed through pipelines across Ukraine.

Russia initially accused Ukraine of diverting away gas intended for delivery to western European countries, plus there were disagreements about transit fees that Russia had to pay for transporting gas across Ukraine. This appeared to be nothing more than a business dispute, though it rapidly escalated into something much more challenging and deeply geopolitical. As we have seen over the last year, Russia’s gas supplies to Europe are a serious matter – though they have been for much longer than many people realise.

Russia had hatched plans for a new pan-European gas pipeline as earlier as 1997, but in the 2000s it began constructing an underwater gas pipeline that would avoid transit issues through both Ukraine and Poland. Called Nord Stream 1, the pipeline would eventually connect to Germany, and be part of the Russian state-owned gas corporation Gazprom’s business portfolio.

To help ease itself into the collective German consciousness and attain legitimacy in the eyes of gas consumers, in 2006 Gazprom announced that it would become the shirt sponsor of Schalke 04. As Gazprom sought to extend its strategic influence upon European gas markets, so it extended its portfolio of football sponsorships. This most notably entailed sponsoring the UEFA Champions League, as well as clubs including the Zenit Saint Petersburg and Red Star Belgrade.

Sponsorship of Zenit was easily explained: Gazprom owns the club, it is where the headquarters of Gazprom is located, and Saint Petersburg is Vladimir Putin’s hometown. The gas corporation’s continuing involvement at Serbia’s biggest club is the result of the country having its entire gas needs met from Gazprom supplies. However, there was a political dimension to this deal, which betrays the real reason Russia often deploys football as a policy instrument.

During the 21st century’s second decade, Serbia was divided on whether it should draw closer either to the European Union or to government in Moscow. Around that time, the Kremlin was also exploring the feasibility of constructing a South Stream gas pipeline, with Serbia a possible channel through which a gas pipeline could be routed. In a gesture of soft power, rumours began to circulate that Gazprom wanted to buy Red Star.

Eventually, the Serbian government stalled on committing to one side or the other, Gazprom started to change its mind about routes south, and a deal for the club ultimately never reached fruition. That said, Gazprom remains as Red Star’s shirt sponsor – one imagines that one reason for this is just in case Serbia’s government changes its mind about relations with Moscow.

This type of football diplomacy has not just been evident in Germany, Serbia and Nyon (the home of UEFA), it is rather more strikingly illustrated by Sherriff Tiraspol. In September 2021, during a Champions League group game, the Moldovan champions defeated Real Madrid, at the Bernabeu Stadium. Many football fans around the world, as well as sections of the mainstream media, interpreted the win as a fairytale of minnows defeating giants.

However, this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Moldova is completely dependent upon Gazprom supplied Russian gas, which is distributed across the country via the eastern region of Transnistria. This is a part of Moldova in which there is a Russian speaking majority; it also sees itself as being aligned more with Moscow than with Moldova’s, capital Chisinau.

Football for Geopolitical Ends

For some, it is a self-proclaimed breakaway state, a political position enforced by former KGB officers, who are the owners of Sherriff Tiraspol. As in the case of Schalke and the Champions League, football for the Russian government and its allies is merely the means to geopolitical ends, rather than an end in itself. Scoring goals is only of secondary importance to the power and influence that investing football can bring.

To football purists, this may seem like a deeply cynical and dystopian incarnation of their favourite sport. Indeed, it seems like a far cry from the days of Oleg Blokhin who, whatever I might have thought at the time, was only ever a great player rather than being a geopolitical policy instrument. Yet this is football in the 21st century.

Blokhin may once have been a name from behind the Iron Curtain, but he gradually became a tangible manifestation of change in Europe. Pre-1991, he served to accentuate the solidarity among nations that constituted the Soviet Union. Afterwards, he helped forge a new national identity for Ukraine, though even during his later years as a coach his was a reputation established in and for football. However, whether it is through gas sponsorships or enabling separatists, as everyone now knows – Russia plays a different game to everyone else, even Oleg Blokhin.