By Manuel Veth –
The annexation of Crimea has raised doubts about the status of its football clubs FK Sevastopol and Tavriya Simferopol and whether they will switch allegiance and opt to play in Russia instead of remaining in Ukraine. Both have received invitations by the Russian Football Union to enter the Russian football league structure as early as the 2014/15 season while both FK Sevastopol and Tavriya Simferopol have already made clear their strong desire to quit the Ukrainian Premier League by the end of the current campaign.
UEFA is meeting on March 27 in Kazakhstan where the fate of the Crimean clubs will be decided. In the foreground to this, there have been calls to prohibit Russia from participating at the 2014 World Cup and to even suspend FIFA’s decision to award the 2018 World Cup to the Russian Federation. Instead of sanctions, however, it is likely that FIFA through UEFA will actually side with Russia (and avoid a “Yugoslavia scenario”, which saw the disintegrating state banned from competitions in 1992 and 1994) and allow the Crimean clubs to compete in Russia.
Taking into account the significant sponsorship money provided by Gazprom, Russia is able to deflect any calls for such sanctions as it has built up a powerful lobby within UEFA, largely through Aleksei Miller and Gazprom; the company has recently signed a major sponsorship agreement with UEFA, which is in the region of £43 million a year, that means UEFA has not only political but also financial motivations to bow down to the requests of the Crimean clubs.
In any case, UEFA and FIFA are the major gatekeepers in the quest for both clubs to join Russia’s football strata. As legal sport experts from Ukraine and Russia have pointed out to Tribuna.com, the Football Federation of Ukraine would have to approve any switch for either (or both) clubs should they wish to compete in a foreign competition.
However, should UEFA and FIFA decide to intervene, they have the power to ultimately overrule any decision made by the UFF.
UEFA’s decision at the end of March could therefore be a watershed moment for Russia’s struggle to gain international recognition for the peninsula as a part of the Russian Federation. The term football diplomacy has often been used to describe the positive influence that football has on politics, most recently between Turkey and Armenia, but if FIFA and UEFA were to allow both clubs to compete in the Russian league system, this global, and self-defined apolitical organisation would be the first global organisation to grant de jure recognition of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. This would add an entirely new aspect to the term football diplomacy, indeed rather than diplomacy it could better be described as “statehood through football affirmation”.
Under this political precondition Tavriya and Sevastopol joining the Russian football league pyramid seemed an unlikely development at first, with FIFA habitually projecting a strong stance against interfering in political decisions. Yet, as the President of the European Parliament pointed out on the German TV station ZDF “the Russian Federation has established political realities on the Crimea, which will be hard to reverse.” It seems therefore very unlikely that Crimean clubs will remain a part of the Ukrainian Premier League with the very real security concerns that would accompany maintaining the status quo.
An alternative possibility would be the establishment of an independent Crimean league. UEFA, however, are unlikely to support a scenario like that found in Abkhazia, where the (largely) unrecognised state formed an independent football competition. UEFA has economic and political interests covering all corners of Europe and would therefore do everything to avoid another ostracized football market such as those found in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Kosovo. All this makes it even more likely that UEFA will grant the requests of the two Crimean clubs.
This now-likely football annexation of Crimea could be a watershed moment in European football. Clubs in Abkhazia and South Ossetia may cite the “Crimea Precedent” and ask for the right to play in the Russian league structure. Looking westward, the ripple effect of the Crimea Precedent could permit Scotland’s Old Firm to pragmatically utilise this legalistic tool in order to enter English football (“through the Black Sea”).
The most instant ramification of the Crimea Precedent, however, concerns the future of the Ukrainian Premier League. What will stop clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk from asking UEFA to be allowed to depart for the greener, more lucrative pastures of the Russian Premier League? Currently 14 out of 32 teams in the top two tiers of Ukrainian football hail from east of the Dnepr and Crimea. As USA Today reported, areas such as the Donbas, and the Kharkiv oblast can be considered highly volatile and in both regions demonstrators have called for secession from Ukraine. But the Donbas and Kharkiv are not the only areas with questionable allegiance for should one include the clubs from Russian-speaking cities Mykolaev and Odessa then 16 out of the 32 professional clubs in Ukraine could potentially threaten to leave the current league structure.
The foundations are potentially being laid for the most drastic re-organisation of the Eastern European football map since the fall of communism in 1991, and the establishment of a Unified League of some members of the former Soviet Union. In fact, the revival of a Unified Football League between Ukraine and Russia has been a long-term project of Gazprom and it seems that the political destabilisation of Ukraine has perhaps opened a window of opportunity where such a league, albeit a Unified League “light”, could indeed become a political and sporting reality.