Connect with us

Football

Missing from Euro 2024, Russia are slowly disappearing from football

Published

on

The last goal scored in a European Championship in Germany was the greatest in the tournament’s history. Some would say the greatest in footballing history. Marco van Basten’s volley combined vision and technique, power and geometrical precision. It condemned the Soviet Union, the competition’s inaugural winners in 1960, to defeat in the final of Euro ’88. It sailed past Rinat Daseyev, the goalkeeper whose nickname of the “Iron Curtain” reflected geopolitics at the time.

Expect to see Van Basten’s volley replayed a lot over the next five weeks: when the Netherlands play, when there are games in Munich, whenever anyone scores a wonderful goal. Don’t expect to see the Soviet Union; or not the national team Fifa regards as its successor, anyway. As Vladimir Putin pursues what many people around eastern Europe believe is his quest to expand Russia’s borders to those of the old USSR, the most easterly representatives in Euro 2024 are instead Georgia and Ukraine. Under Putin, Russia has invaded areas of both at various points in the last two decades.

The last time a major men’s international tournament was staged in Europe, the Russian president was ubiquitous for other reasons. Putin gave an opening speech before the 2018 World Cup in which he described Russia as “open, hospitable, friendly”; not three adjectives many would now apply to it. “The great power of football,” he said, could “strengthen peace and mutual understanding among peoples”. It is not an approach he has adopted subsequently.

The tournament ended with Gianni Infantino, flanked by Putin, handing the 2018 World Cup to Hugo Lloris; the France goalkeeper may wonder what he had done to be in that company. Putin was in the Croatia dressing room, congratulating Luka Modric on winning the Golden Ball. The following year, Infantino was awarded the Russian Medal of Friendship by Putin; like much else in a sorry tale, it has not aged well.

In 2018, Russia was at the centre of the footballing world. Now it is the pariah, the largest country on the planet suspended from international competition. Some 24 nations will converge for Euro 2024; Russia will not be one of them. Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia’s status as increasingly a pariah state has been reflected by football. They were suspended from a play-off to reach the 2022 World Cup. The 2022 Champions League final was due to be held in St Petersburg, the 2023 Super Cup in Kazan. They were reassigned to Paris and Piraeus respectively.

Russian clubs have not competed in European club competitions for the last two seasons. They will not in 2024-25, either, just as Russia were excluded from the Nations League draw. It is as yet unclear if Russia will play in 2026 World Cup qualifiers but impossible to see how they could.

A boycott has been driven by their European neighbours, repulsed by the Russian government’s actions. They were due to play Poland in that 2022 World Cup play-off, but the Poles refused. In October, Uefa had to abandon a plan to let Russian Under-17 teams appear in its competitions, even in neutral kits, after a series of other countries refused to compete against them.

Which, it scarcely requires saying, stems from the actions of the Kremlin. Russia exchanged soft power for conflict, trading a place in the global community for a bid to upend it. Rather than welcoming the world, Russia subjects it to frequent threats of nuclear war. If the aim was ever to be loved, now it is to be feared. While some right-wing and relatively pro-Russian politicians in the old eastern block have fared well in recent elections, Putin is losing a European popularity contest, abandoning attempts to use the power of persuasion to instead employ the power of thuggery. Like Ukraine and Georgia, Poland, the Baltic states and various other countries behind the Iron Curtain – to borrow Winston Churchill’s original meaning for the phrase, rather than one of the best goalkeepers of the 1980s – would prefer to be in the European Union and Nato than the Soviet sphere of influence. Sport is a reflection of the way that Russia has lost cultural power. Europe and North America have rallied behind Ukraine, leaving Russia looking to Asia for allies.

If Putin did not anticipate the level of Ukrainian defiance he has encountered, it is safe to say, he did not expect Russia to be ejected from various international sporting organisations. But it is evidently a price he considers worth paying, even if his words from 2018 suggest what football means to people from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. “In our country, football is not just the most popular sport,” he said at the opening ceremony. “People genuinely love football. And it was love at first sight.”

Now Russia will have to watch on from afar, missing a European Championship for the first time since 2000; due to political choices, not footballing failure. Apartheid South Africa may be proof that sporting boycotts can work, even if it takes time and the impact is indirect, in illustrating to the wider population that a country has become a renegade state, deemed beyond the pale by its peers.

And it is worth noting both how few matches the isolated Russia side have played in the last two and a half years, and against whom. Russia took on Serbia – traditionally one of its closest allies in Europe – in March. They beat close allies Belarus in June. It was just their 11th match since the start of 2022: the first three were against former Soviet republics, in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The six in 2023 painted a geopolitical picture: Iran, Iraq, Qatar, Cameroon, Kenya and Cuba. There isn’t a footballing superpower among them, but there are missile deals, gas supplies and throwbacks to Communist alliances.

There might have been a way to get more competitive games. But in December, the Russian FA voted against quitting Uefa to join the Asian Football Confederation. “Everyone supported the decision unanimously,” the RFU vice-president Akhmed Aydamirov said, adding a Putin-friendly flourish. “We will fight for Europe. Russia is Europe. We will win.”

That may depend on the definition of victory. Militarily, Putin is playing a long game; no doubt hoping for convicted criminal Donald Trump to return to the White House later this year. Yet the 2026 World Cup in the United States is very likely to occur without Russia.

For multiple reasons. From a footballing perspective, isolation tends to take a country backwards in the global game. Russia’s domestic league is weakened – some of the more prominent imports have left, such as Malcom, Dejan Lovren and Grzegorz Krychowiak – while few of their players ply their trade abroad.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin touches the World Cup
President of Russia Vladimir Putin touches the World Cup (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, unable to amass points while suspended, Russia has slipped from seventh to 22nd in the Uefa coefficients for club football. The highest-ranking Russian side, Zenit St Petersburg, are now only 79th in the club standings; Lokomotiv and Spartak Moscow, the next two, are outside the top 100, with only four Russian clubs in the top 200. Were they to return, they would face plenty of qualifying rounds even to get to a group stage. The two Russian Uefa Cup wins – by CSKA Moscow in 2005 and Zenit in 2008 – look still further away, still harder to repeat.

Go back 15 or 20 years and it was possible to see Russia as the emerging force in the European club game. Instead, the axis of European football has shifted further to the west, with the primacy of the five major domestic leagues apparent: even the expanded Champions League, with January games next year, is an indication of that: January fixtures in Moscow would be impractical. The absence of fixtures in Moscow is unlikely to be mourned, with Uefa previously punishing CSKA in 2014 “for the racist behaviour of their supporters, crowd disturbances and the setting off/throwing of fireworks and missiles by their supporters”.

Meanwhile, despite Putin’s evident aim to return Russia to a political superpower, they have been at most a mid-ranking footballing power, a sporting failure for much of his reign. With occasional exceptions – when they were semi-finalists at Euro 2008 or quarter-finalists at the 2018 World Cup – Russia are the great international underachievers of Europe in the last 35 years. They have exited nine of 11 tournaments in the group stages, often ignominiously. Starting with Euro 1992 – as the Commonwealth of Independent States, a distinctly anachronistic and very short-term name, when they lost to Scotland – and since then, they have been beaten by other far smaller countries: Wales, Slovakia, Denmark, Greece, Belgium (and not the Belgian golden generation, either). There is an argument that banning Russia is simply an act of kindness, given their track record of punching below their weight.

But there is also a question if Russia can win when they comply with the rules, if they are au fait with the idea of winning fairly, given their state-sponsored Olympic doping programme which accounted for some of their gold medals. Or, indeed, the way the United States Department of Justice alleged Russia bribed high-ranking Fifa officials to vote for them to host the 2018 World Cup.

Meanwhile, it is worth remembering that Ukraine co-hosted Euro 2012, that the final was played in Kyiv and one semi-final in Donetsk, a region where Russian forces would support pro-Russian separatists to take territory two years later – and Moscow is still seeking to control now. Now Ukraine’s “home” games are scattered across Czech Republic, Slovakia and, largely, Poland. Ukraine qualified for Euro 2024 by beating Iceland in Wroclaw; they were the home team in a city closer to London than Donetsk.

Denis Cheryshev celebrates at the 2018 Fifa World Cup, Russia’s last appearance at a major tournament
Denis Cheryshev celebrates at the 2018 Fifa World Cup, Russia’s last appearance at a major tournament (Getty Images)

With Georgia also progressing, reaching their first major tournament via the back door of the play-off place the Nations League provides, Euro 2024 offers a different footballing map of Europe; one that Putin is seeking to redraw in blood. It brings a stark contrast with the summer’s Olympics, where Russian athletes can compete; a U-turn meant the British government supported that.

Thus far, the footballing stance has been stronger; not necessarily from Uefa – there are still Russians on many a Uefa committee – but from a number of member states. Uefa had to abandon its sponsorship deal with Gazprom. The ripples of the loss of Russian money has been felt at clubs from Chelsea to Vitesse Arnhem, from Everton and Schalke who had Russian owners or Russian-linked backers or sponsors.

But the impact has been greatest on Ukraine. With revenue reduced as gates are minimal or non-existent, with European games played abroad, its clubs have been raided for many of their major assets; even if the national team may benefit, Ukraine’s most capped player, the retired Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is disgraced in his homeland for choosing to stay on as Zenit St Petersburg’s assistant coach. He was banned by the Ukrainian FA and sanctioned by the Ukrainian government.

Others have become emblems for their country. Andriy Shevchenko and Oleksandr Zinchenko are among the UNITED24 ambassadors, raising funds for Ukraine. Igor Belanov, the 1986 Ballon d’Or winner, signed up for the Territorial Defence Unit of his native Odesa, even though he is in his sixties.

The only other outfield player from the Soviet Union to be voted European Footballer of the Year, Oleg Blokhin, is also Ukrainian. The outstanding manager produced by the Soviet Union, for his achievements with Dynamo Kyiv and influence far outside it, was the Ukrainian Valeriy Lobanovskyi. The only Soviet clubs to win a European trophy were Dynamo, with two Cup Winners’ Cups under Lobanovskyi, and the Georgians of Dinamo Tbilisi, with one.

And Lobanovskyi was in charge of the 1988 Soviet Union side who, until Van Basten intervened, might have won the European Championship. Of the 13 players used in the final, nine – Oleksiy Mykhaylychenko, Vasyl Rats, Anatoliy Demyanenko, Hennadiy Lytovchenko, Oleksandr Zavarov, Oleh Protasov, Sergei Baltacha, Viktor Pasulko and Belanov – were Ukrainians. What could be seen as the last great Russian side wasn’t really Russian at all.

Continue Reading