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