Home

Football and Geopolitics: A UEFA Recognized League Starts in the Crimea as (Geo)Politics Meet Industrial Football

Comments Off on Football and Geopolitics: A UEFA Recognized League Starts in the Crimea as (Geo)Politics Meet Industrial Football

On Sunday August 23, 2015 a UEFA-backed league of eight teams started play in the Crimea with SKChF Sevastopol and TSK-Tavria Simferopol playing to a 2-2 draw. The Associated Press story offers few words and no analysis of what is, actually, a groundbreaking event. I have written before on the footballing situation in Ukraine’s Crimea, when Russia attempted to bring the clubs playing on the peninsula into Russia’s footballing structure by placing them in the Russian second division albeit with changed names; it was a bold attempt to solidify their annexation of the territory in the sporting realm. UEFA did not allow that to happen and the teams were dropped from Russia’s second division—it must have been too bold a move for Michel Platini and the rest of the UEFA hierarchy to stomach. Yet they have now, surprisingly, allowed the annexed territory to have their own league separate from Ukraine’s. It sets a dangerous precedent, and seems to be at odds with UEFA’s own stance of staying clear of politics.

Eurasianet has noted before that “Russia is hoping football can become an instrument that it can use to help legitimize its annexation of Crimea.” František Laurinec, the former president of Slovakia’s Football Association and head of a UEFA delegation that visited Crimea in March of 2015, justified UEFA’s approach in sporting terms. It was certainly a harbinger of things to come: “I hope our mission will not undermine the EU’s sanctions against Russia. We only want to prevent the death of football in this part of our Europe. To be pragmatic, we have to say that Crimean clubs are not even currently an active part of Ukrainian football. UEFA wants to help save football in Crimea, especially youth and grassroots [development]. This is a core of our mission and we try to find solutions.” The words are well meaning as they stand, but they are still only words. The reality is that a European entity, UEFA, is tacitly accepting Russia’s land grab in the face of opposition from the European Union and the United States.

Hardcore “Ultras” in Simferopol, one of the cities represented in the new Crimean league, will not be pleased with this development. Oleg, a 23 year old fan quoted by The Guardian, explains that “when the protests in Ukraine started ultras from Tavriya [Simferopol] attended a meeting with hardcore fans from other Ukrainian clubs and agreed there should be a truce: ‘Most ultras are nationalists. We are Ukrainian and we are for a united Ukraine. It was obvious that fighting the authorities was more important than fighting each other’.” The fight will have to go on a little longer, however, following the UEFA decision.

What makes UEFA’s move more puzzling is the fact that European football’s governing body has treated other disputed territories in Europe very differently in the past. Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 2008 but still doesn’t have an independent league recognized by UEFA, despite the fact that its independence is recognized by 23 of the 28 members of the EU. What the difference between UEFA’s “recognition” of the new Crimean league compared to their stance on Kosovo, however, has not yet been explicitly stated by UEFA. Despite UEFA’s opposition to recognizing domestic Kosovar football their national team was allowed to play a FIFA sanctioned friendly against Haiti in March of 2014…in the city of Mitrovica—home to a large amount of Serbs and NATO peacekeepers—no less.

Even more complicated is the case of Gibraltar. The British Overseas Territory is, interestingly enough, recognized by UEFA (a step above Kosovo) but not by FIFA (there they are in the same boat). Still, the territory is lobbying hard for recognition from FIFA despite an abysmal record in qualifying for the 2016 European Championships, which they have been able to participate in after UEFA granted them membership in 2013 over Spanish (and Belorussian) objections. The 16-year history of Gibraltar’s travails to join UEFA is documented in part here.

So what can we understand from UEFA’s politicking regarding the legitimacy of football in countries and territories with varying levels of international recognition? Sadly, as with so much in the industrial football world, it all comes down to money—the same thing that brought hammer of the United States Department of Justice down on FIFA. UEFA does not want to run afoul of Moscow with FIFA having already awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia. Therefore they are tacitly accepting the annexation of Crimea under the guise of “keeping football afloat on the peninsula”. And, because Russia holds so much influence in FIFA—and thereby UEFA—European Soccer’s governing body cannot accept Kosovo since that would offend Russia’s long-time ally, Serbia. Plus, the Kosovo Superleague isn’t exactly a money making machine. On the other side, Gibraltar has the clout of being a British Overseas Territory—in the first round of voting on Gibraltar’s UEFA accession England, Scotland, and Wales were the only countries to vote for their inclusion in European football. But those three are still influential countries. Spain squawked, but they would never have withdrawn from European competition or allowed Barcelona and Real Madrid to lose out on Champions League revenue over Gibraltar.

And so Gibraltar and its club teams can appear in UEFA competitions while Kosovo’s can’t and the Crimean teams will stay somewhere in limbo, just like the territory they represent. It seems that when it comes to football these days it is money—and not principles—that talk. Just look at some of the Simferopol fans interviewed by the Guardian, who have high hopes for their team’s future under Putin. Vitaly Grenyov says “I think there will be good times ahead for the club. The whole world is going to look at what Putin does with Crimea,” while a Crimean Tatar identified as “Server” hopes that Tavriya become a “showcase” project for the Russian annexation: “I remember from reading in school about tsars and shahs that they always have to provide the people with two things: bread and circuses.” With the focus solely on money, UEFA’s actions are indeed be-fitting of a circus act.

platini_uefa_bosna_bosnia

UEFA President Michel Platini Running Off With a Stylish European Leather Satchel of Cash. Image Courtesy of UEFA Awareness at http://uefaawareness.tumblr.com/post/12813829566/bosnians-mock-platini-via-uefas-financial-fair

Sevastopol Fans

“A fan of FC SKChF Sevastopol (СКЧФ Севастополь), formerly FC Sevastopol of the Ukrainian Premier League, holds a team scarf with the colors of the Russian flag and written in Cyrillic ‘Sevastapol – Hero City,’ which refers to the Soviet-era status bestowed upon the port city following World War II”. Image and Caption Courtesy Of: http://www.eurasianet.org/node/72601

Tavriya-Simferopol-fans--003

Tavriya Simferopol’s Ultras. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/22/crimea-ukraine-football-ultras

Football and Geopolitics: Behind the FIFA Scandal

4 Comments

May 27 2015 will prove to be a day that lives in infamy—the day scandal rocked world soccer’s governing body, leaving 14 FIFA officials under arrest in Zurich, Switzerland. This is, of course, old news. I’ll try to make it interesting by putting the whole surreal event in a geopolitical context. Lets start with the basics. It was the United States Department of Justice that spearheaded the operation in a 164-page 47-count indictment. In some ways it felt like turning back the clock; the United States of America emerging from its isolation to ostensibly “save the world” by crossing the oceans as in World War One and World War Two. Of course, there were reasons for this particular move since parts of the scandal pertained directly to the United States of America; the Economist outlines them nicely. A video version for those averse to reading is available courtesy of CNN.

The United States has, since World War Two, controlled much of the world system indirectly through both formal and informal international organizations, befitting its hegemonic role. Financially it was initially through the Bretton Woods system, since then it has been the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Politically control came first through Woodrow Wilson’s brainchild the League of Nations, now there is the New York headquartered United Nations. Culturally the United States has been able to influence the world to a great extent as well; first through Hollywood and music, now it is through technological advancements such as iPhones and iPods, Google, Facebook and Twitter that American culture is felt the world over.

The one sphere in which the United States has failed to make a global impact is, arguably, the world of sports. Indeed the results of a 2014 Harris poll, which has asked Americans aged 18 and older the simple question, “What is your favorite sport?” every year since 1985, tell us that Americans are very USA-centric when it comes to sport.

 

America’s Favorite Sports in 2014 (Courtesy of ESPN)

The National Football League (NFL)(Professional [American] Football): 35%

Major League Baseball (MLB) (Professional Baseball): 14%

College Football (NCAA): 11%

Auto Racing: 7%

National Basketball Association (Professional US Basketball): 6%

National Hockey League (Professional Hockey): 5%

College Basketball (NCAA): 3%

 

The top three vote getters—and more than half of the entire poll’s respondents and 60 percent—listed sports played almost entirely in the United States as their favorite sports. The next highest sport listed is Auto Racing. Although this is a global sport—think of Formula 1 and Rally cars—I personally believe that responders had NASCAR (Again, very American) in mind when answering this question. That leaves the NBA and the NHL—just 11 percent of all respondents called these two their favorite sports—as the only ostensibly international sports to make the list. I say ostensibly because although basketball is played all over the world—and the NBA has been making itself more international with each passing year—it is still a very different game than FIBA’s Euroleague, to name one. Hockey is international in the sense that the NHL has 7 Canadian teams (alongside 23 American teams), but I’m sure very few responders cited in this poll had ever watched a game from Russia’s KHL. Hockey also has a fairly small fan base, limited to those living in northern climates along a belt stretching from Vancouver to the steppes of Central Asia and going only as far south as, perhaps, Zurich, along that belt outside of the United States.

Soccer is certainly the one place in world sport—and world culture, for that matter—that the rest of the world has a chance to best the United States. And it is this chance for “the rest to beat the best of the West”—the battle between the global South and global North played out on the pitch—that gives international football, and the World Cup in particular, its unparalleled allure. The recently departed Eduardo Galeano’s masterpiece Soccer in Sun and Shadow explains the phenomenon well without explicitly saying it (and therein lies the book’s genius, at least for me). So why did the United States focus its power on FIFA, what I explained in my thesis was arguably the first international organization and the globe’s first foray into global civil society, when the US isn’t even interested in the sport? The answer may lie in the organization’s history. FIFA was founded in 1904 in the midst of a different era, the era of empires when the hegemonic power base was located in colonialist Europe and old world territorial powers such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russian Empire, and Ottoman Empire were in decline. Fledgling nations rushed to achieve FIFA membership in order to affirm their independence—to states such as Lebanon, Syria, and others, emerging from the ashes of empires that had long controlled them as dusty peripheral provinces from lavish imperial palaces in far-off capitals, FIFA Membership was what NATO membership now means to Georgia, what European Union membership now means to Ukraine and Serbia. Membership to FIFA was a bold statement to the world: We Have Arrived! And this feeling has not gone away. Today there are 209 members in FIFA. Compare that to the 193 official member states of the United Nations. Look at Palestine’s attempts to push Israel out of FIFA if you don’t believe that FIFA membership can provide succor to those unable to get a seat at the United Nations at which to air their grievances. Perhaps the United States moved to strike a blow at an international institution that had strayed from its original goal of bringing together nations in fair play for everyone’s benefit; it was not founded to line the pockets of a few corrupt officials after all. So, like the American interventions in both World Wars, this can be looked at as another benign intervention by the world’s superpower in order to save the (sporting) world from itself. But there are other theories as well.

As many know, the nexus of the FIFA scandal lies in the bribes received by officials in return for, among other things, votes in choosing World Cup hosts. The hosts of the next two World Cups—as chosen by the aforementioned officials—are Russia (in 2018) and Qatar (in 2022). Both of these countries have something else in common—they are, on some scale, geopolitical rivals of the United States. And both won the right to host their respective World Cups over the United States’ interests; chief US ally England lost out to Russia in 2018 and Qatar beat out the United States’ own bid for 2022. Clearly, the United States could not sit idly by when the chance at winning a considerable amount of soft power influence in the world for themselves and their ally went by the way side. Russia has long been a geopolitical rival to the United States; Qatar is using the confusing situation in the Middle East to cement their role as a regional power in a region key to the United States’ foreign policy interests and hope that hosting a major sporting event such as the World Cup can add to their influence in the region. South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula represents another voice from the global South who criticized the U.S. move by mentioning the U.S./British alliance, saying that it is “for the United States and Britain to fight their own battles: ‘We have fought colonialism and defeated it and we still fight imperialism and we will fight it whenever it manifests itself.’

With the stakes this high, the United States’ move may still pay off. Although FIFA insists that there will be no re-vote for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, signs are showing that nothing is certain. Human rights groups have called on Qatar to publish the death figures for workers building stadiums for the tournament and it is estimated that 1200 migrant workers have died in the construction since 2014. Long-time FIFA president Sepp Blatter—who was reelected days ago despite the scandal—resigned on June 2 from his position at the head of Soccer’s governing body. These events—along with UEFA president Michel Platini’s long standing issue with the 2022 World Cup’s potential to affect the European football season—signal to me that a re-consideration may be on the cards.

In such a globalized world—where the World Cup has become bigger than ever—it is only fitting for the world’s sole superpower, the United States, to take a leading role. And in this increasingly interconnected world it is equally fitting that geopolitics is intimately linked with cultural and sporting events.

I find it refreshing that some action has been taken against corruption in world football. But there is still more to be done—the Economist warns that the endemic corruption in sports goes beyond just Sepp Blatter because “sports corruption is a reflection of wider problems—sport merely being an organism to which criminal succubi attach themselves—it is too formidable for sporting organisations to tackle alone.” For the sake of the game we all love let’s hope the United States’ intervention keeps the game from turning into a vehicle to make the rich richer. In David Goldblatt’s words, “the entire football industry has traded on the notion that the game really is the most global cultural practice in the world, a rare form of universalism on a divided planet. That, if nothing else, is worth salvaging from the wreckage.” I can only agree.

seppblatter-cropped-zcmts50hniqo1qmuvbv9bprh4

Image Courtesy Of: http://pulse.ng/sports/football/sepp-blatter-resignation-sepp-blatter-resignation-the-football-world-reacts-id3822195.html