Crimean teams could cost Russia the right to host 2018 World Cup

Officials fear stiff penalty over clubs breaching Uefa regulations

Russian president Vladimir Putin: the annexing of of Crimea could have unforseen consequences for Russia’s plans to host the 2018 World Cup.

Russian president Vladimir Putin: the annexing of of Crimea could have unforseen consequences for Russia’s plans to host the 2018 World Cup.


Officials fear penalty for breaching Uefa regulations in Russian Cup preliminary matches and falling foul of Vladimir Putin

SKChF Sevastopol won 2-0 at TSK Simferopol on Tuesday last week while Zhemchuzhina Yalta went down 2-0 at home to Sochi in the first round of the Russian Cup. On Saturday the winners of the two ties met, SKChF advancing to the third round on penalties after a goalless draw. Their reward is a home tie against Taganrog to be played on Friday.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about those results, although SKChF were fined 30,000 roubles (€623) after their fans invaded the pitch at TSK (who were fined 10,000 roubles for failing to keep spectators off the pitch). But context is everything: SKChF Sevastopol, TSK Simferopol and Zhemchuzhina Yalta are clubs based in Crimea.

That is of huge significance and not only because their presence in Russian competitions continues the process of normalisation in Crimea, integrating the peninsula into the Russian state. There is also a fear within the Russian Football Union (RFU) that Crimean teams in these competitions could cost Russia the right to host the 2018 World Cup.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea in March Tavriya Simferopol and FC Sevastopol played the rest of the season in the Ukrainian league, with their ultras making clear that they saw themselves as Ukrainians. At the end of the season both clubs were disbanded, some said for financial as much as political reasons, with debts going unpaid.

The new entities, along with Zhemchuzhina, were accepted into the RFU at the end of July, although the Crimean federation has not yet been admitted. Uefa, though, still recognises the clubs as Ukrainian, placing their involvement in the competition of another nation in contravention of Uefa statutes. Fifa’s regulations would allow it but only with the agreement of both national associations.

Fifa has said it will defer to Uefa’s jurisdiction and Uefa has done nothing more than encourage the federations to negotiate but the potential consequences are profound, as was made clear by a recording of the meeting at which the RFU decided to accept the Crimean clubs, which was published by Novaya Gazeta last week.

The transcript is extraordinary, partly for what it reveals of tensions within the RFU but mainly for the way it shows how the executive committee sees itself as trapped between, on the one hand, Vladimir Putin and his desire for the full integration of Crimea into Russia, and on the other, Uefa and Fifa (and the sanctions that could be imposed on them and their businesses by the US and the EU).

In terms of the World Cup the key lines come early, after Vladimir Yakunin, the head of Russia Railways, accused Yevgeny Giner, the president of the Russian champions, CSKA Moscow, of “crawling on his belly”. Giner was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1960 and made his fortune in energy and cars. He is a former president of the RFU and a close ally of Roman Abramovich. He fears Russian clubs could be expelled from the Champions League and that the World Cup could be taken from Russia as part of sanctions or as a specific penalty for breaching the Uefa regulation.

“I have a club to support,” he snapped in response to Yakunin, “and tomorrow they could pull us from 2018.” He later repeated his concern, saying that Fifa would “give it to England”. It is true that were Russia to be stripped of the World Cup, Germany and England are probably the only two European nations who would be capable of stepping in at short notice.

Given England had bid for 2018, that means a willingness to comply with Fifa in matters of its tax demands, but it would still take some remarkable politicking for Fifa to ask the FA to take over.

The fear is real enough in Russia. Sergey Galitsky, the owner of Magnet stores and FC Krasnodar, suggested the RFU should admit the Crimean clubs only if the decision was taken “at the highest level” - that is, by Putin. Would he gamble the possibility of losing hosting rights for greater normalisation in Crimea? Nobody is sure, and Vitaly Mutko, the sports minister, has not made the official position clear.

Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, visited Russia last weekend and met Putin to discuss “business related to the World Cup”, although the precise details are unclear.

The situation was summed up by the former RFU president Vyacheslav Koloskov who, from the transcript, seemed to be the clearest thinking of anybody at the meeting. He once described the tactics used by the England 2018 bid team as “primitive”. “Fifa and Uefa,” he said, “will not be guided by the opinion of even the country’s president. If Putin says: ‘I agree. We will accept them,’ then Fifa and Uefa will not be guided by that decision that the president has taken.

“It is correct to state that Crimea and Sevastopol are within the Russian Federation. The problem is not that we have something impossible: we can register these clubs in Russia - it will not change anything. We had no right to play in Sevastopol or Yalta, nor in Simferopol, anywhere ... sanctions are inevitable, I would say immediately. But nobody will impose the maximum sanctions straight away. First there will be a warning period to rectify the situation.”

That, as Galitsky said, is worrying enough. “Besides the fact that we could be kicked out of the European cups, foreigners will start to leave and the house of cards will fall.” And yet there was a certain fatalism. “If the decision is taken at the top of the polity,” he said, “we will take it, because we are citizens of this country.”

And really, that is the crux of the matter. This is a matter of national policy, with the RFU scrabbling around to make sense of it all, faced with the absurd equation of a Russian Cup preliminary round match that could cost them the World Cup.

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