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

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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.

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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

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

Yugoslavia World Cup 2014: What If Yugoslavia Had Stayed Together?

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What if the South had won the American Civil War? What if Archduke Ferdinand had never been shot in Sarajevo? What if Pearl Harbor was not bombed and the United States hadn’t entered World War Two? What if the Soviet Union had won the Cold War? Alternate histories are an interesting game to play in the study of international history. One could go on forever on these subjects, creating scenarios in one’s mind over scotch in the local pub. Here is one more, a scenario very pertinent to modern history: What if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart in the 1990s?

As a football fan it is hard not to bring this particular alternate history to mind (The Guardian mentioned it 7 years ago), especially during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Half a world away and twenty years removed from the violence in the Balkans, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina proudly represent independent nations on the green fields of Brazil. Both teams had monumental tasks in their first matches but can hold their heads high—Croatia fell victim to some questionable refereeing in their first match against hosts Brazil, while Bosnia put up a good fight before ultimately coming up short against an Argentina backed by Messi’s brilliance.

But the Balkan flavor of the 2014 World Cup does not end with the big names of Luka Modric and Edin Dzeko. They are merely where it begins. Take the unforgettable finish to yesterday’s meeting between Ecuador and Switzerland as an example.

 

 

Ecuador went up early through a headed goal by Enner Valencia and Switzerland were left looking lost through the first forty-five minutes, facing a 1-0 deficit at half-time. Switzerland needed a spark, and it came from the region many have termed the “powder-keg of Europe”—the Balkans. Just two minutes after coming on as a half-time substitute Admir Mehmedi capitalized on some poor Ecuadorian defending to level proceedings at 1-1. Mehmedi himself is an ethnic Albanian, born in Gostivar, Macedonia (in the northwest corner of the country, near the Kosovo border) in 1991, before moving to Switzerland at the age of two.

Then came the best finish to any of the matches so far. Ecuador looked to have a chance in the third minute of stoppage time when Valon Behrami dove in to block the shot, before gaining control of the ball. Behrami then orchestrated the counter attack, taking the ball across the half way line and setting up the play that eventually gave another second half substitute, Haris Seferovic, the chance to net the winner for Switzerland and settle the final score at 2-1.

Valon Behrami is an ethnic Albanian, born in what was then Titova Mitrovica (now just Mitrovica, a city has seen sporadic ethnic clashes between Serbs and Kosovars since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 and subsequent sovereignty in 2012) in present-day Kosovo before moving to Switzerland at age five. Meanwhile, the goal scorer Seferovic was born in Switzerland in 1992 to Bosnian parents who emigrated in the 1980s. What is especially remarkable is that of Switzerland’s World Cup squad of 23 players, an astounding 8 have some Balkan connection:

 

Granit Xhaka: The Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder was born in Basel in 1992 to Albanian parents.

Valon Behrami: As discussed above, the Napoli midfielder was born in present-day Kosovo in 1985 before emigrating to Switzerland in 1990.

Blerim Dzemaili: The 28 year old Napoli midfielder was born in Tetovo, current day FYR Macedonia to an Albanian family before emigrating to Zurich at age 4.

Xherdan Shaquiri: Bayern Munich’s star winger was born in Gnjilane, Yugoslavia (now present-day Kosovo) in 1991 before emigrating to Switzerland a year later.

Haris Seferovic: As discussed above, the Real Sociedad striker was born to Bosnian Parents in Sursee, Switzerland in 1992.

Mario Gavranovic: The twenty four year old FC Zurich forward was born in Lugano to Bosnian Croat parents who emigrated from Gradacac (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 1988.

Josip Drmic: The young Bayer Leverkusen striker was born in Lachen Switzerland in 1992 to a Croatian family.

Admir Mehmedi: As discussed above, the Freiburg striker was born in Gostivar, Macedonia in 1991 to an Albanian family before emigrating to Switzerland in 1993.

 

Sports Illustrated wrote an enjoyable article on the Bosnian team in the run up to the World Cup and I would argue that the story of Switzerland’s Balkan contingent is equally enthralling. Certainly it begs the question: what if Yugoslavia had not fallen apart and lost such athletic talent? Obviously sport has a nature vs. nurture element to it—would these footballers have been able to work their way up through the less developed youth systems in an intact Yugoslavia? How much of their progress was aided by having access to modern training facilities in Switzerland? Would they have chosen to represent a Yugoslavian team over the team of their adopted homeland (if their families had even emigrated in the first place)? And what about all the other variables that life throws at us, so far out of any individual’s control?

I argue that they would have had a fighting chance—after all, Yugoslavia was a respectable team before the dark days of the 1990s. They were semi-finalists in the World Cup twice and Quarterfinalists once, in 1990. And who can forget that strange twist of history—because of the wars Yugoslavia was disqualified from the 1992 European Championships after qualifying and was replaced by Denmark . . . the team that went on to win the tournament.

Twenty years on the reverberations of the conflict spread beyond just the teams qualified for this World Cup. The current captain of the Serbian national football team (which did not qualify) is Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic, one of the best defenders in the world today. Tiny Montenegro, a country of just over 650,000 and the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, boast two Premier League players on their squad and gave England a run for their money during qualification for the 2014 World Cup after narrowly missing out on a spot in the 2012 European Championships in a playoff to the Czech Republic. And I won’t even count Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic—the mercurial striker who is currently one of the world’s best—since his Bosniak father (and Croatian mother) emigrated from the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s, long before the collapse. But, if an intact Yugoslavia had fielded a team in 2001 when Zlatan first made his debut for Sweden, might he have opted for the country of his parent’s birth? We will never know, but it’s worth a thought.

This year’s favorites may be Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland, and Spain to name a few but—if only for a moment—imagine the possibilities in this World Cup if modern history had taken a different turn.