Between sanctions and stances, does sport have the means to weigh in on Vladimir Putin?

Schalke 04 cuts gas from Russia. At a time when Germany is questioning its reliance on Russian gas, the Gelsenkirchen (Bundesliga 2) club has made the bold decision to split from its main sponsor and, incidentally, spend 9 million euros a year. A nice amount. “The board of FC Schalke 04 has decided, with the approval of the supervisory board, to terminate the contract with Gazprom before its expiry,” Schalke announced on Monday.

The blow never comes alone from UEFA, a partner since 2012 on a contract estimated at €40 million a year, also severing its contract with Gazprom in an announcement made Monday night. The reminder of an even greater shock: a few minutes earlier, the body headed by Aleksander Ceferin announced the exclusion of Russian clubs from all its international competitions. The direct result of this is the elimination of Spartak Moscow, who are in the knockout phase of the Europa League.

UEFA distinguished itself last week by moving the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg to the Stade de France. “Too bad,” the Kremlin replied, more shaken than it seems. Today he should be completely disabled. The most trusted partner in world sports, FIFA, has announced Russia’s exclusion from the 2022 World Cup. In a split second, Putin has lost everything on the sports chessboard.

A final blow, because the sanctions have been raining since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Non-exhaustive list:

  • IOC recommendation to federations not to invite Russian and Belarusian athletes and withdrawal of Vladimir Putin’s Olympic order.
  • Refusal by Poland, Sweden and Czechs to take on Russia in the dam of the 2022 World Cup. And now calls for exclusion from the next World Cup, a decision FIFA could make in the coming hours after they have a position had taken for ever brave of the IOC.
  • Cancellation of the Sochi GP.
  • Temporary exclusion of Russian basketball clubs from the Euroleague
  • Russian athletes declared persona non grata in Great Britain, Norway and Sweden
  • Russian national anthem and flag banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The importance of sports in Russia

Secondary at the time of the war, the fighting and the lost lives, the withdrawal from the sport imposed on Russia remains not unimportant. For specialists, it is a source of concern for Moscow and a personal affront to Putin. Little known for his art of cultivating friendships in the West, the Russian president was the first to congratulate Thomas Bach on the phone after the latter’s election in 2013, receiving the ties linking him to Gianni Infantino – Putin him the Order of Friendship in 2019 – has long annoyed many FIFA haters.

“Russians are passionate about sports. Hosting big events gets them excited, and if they’re sidelined, questions will immediately arise about what’s going on. explains Michael Payne, chief of marketing for two decades at the CIO.

We remember. The 2018 World Cup had authorized crowds and other joyous scenes caused by an exploit of the dimension of a quarter-final qualifier against Spain. For once, the police who didn’t flinch. Was it a sign? At that time, it was believed, somewhat naively, that football changed Russian society. Perhaps there was a truth. Today it demonstrates again, this time not without danger. Because it is about denouncing the invasion of Ukraine and thus counteracting Vladimir Putin with the risks that it entails. According to the NGO OVD-INFO, 3,000 people were arrested on Saturday, February 26.

Russian athletes speak

The unanimity fantasized by the Kremlin does not exist and sport, despite being a pre-eminent propaganda tool, is no exception. Former boxer Alexander Povetkin may have come out in defense of the invasion of Ukraine and praised his virtues in stamping out a resurrected Nazism, especially a large number of Russian sportsmen and women who support peace. Tennis player Andrey Rublev, international football player Fedor Smolov, hockey player Alex Ovechkin or cyclist Pavel Sivakov – among others – have publicly expressed their rejection of war: this can only encourage the population to question the actions of their leaders and to increase national support. undermine for the war,” said Payne.

Is it therefore relevant to condemn all Russian athletes to solitary confinement? One might question whether these athletes will continue to commit themselves to the pacifist cause if the West prevents them from playing sports or stigmatizes them. I’m not sure if the IOC’s coating based on “we welcome the many calls for peace launched by the athletes” will suffice in the long run.

Note that such a strategy is not only frustrating but also fuels the fantasy Vladimir Putin has conveyed to a people whose patriotism he has long sought to exacerbate on the altar of isolation on the international stage, especially in sports. French geopolitical scientist Lukas Aubin explains: 20 minutes

“Power lives a lot thanks to ‘one against all’. In recent years, when there have been international events, mainly because of doping, Russia has found itself in an isolated position. This was the case for the Rio Olympics, for Euro 2021, the 2021 Olympics and Beijing. The discourse has always been: ‘Westerns don’t understand us, in this case they sided with Ukraine, they don’t see that our history is commonplace, etc’. All this is used at any sporting event. †

Abramovich as mediator?

Finally, we must not forget the question of the Russian oligarchs who are present in European sport. AS Monaco, owned by Russian billionaire Dimitri Rybolovlev, has so far remained very discreet on the subject. As for Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, he went on to entrust “the directors of the Chelsea charitable foundation with the management” of the London club, although the formula was as vague as it seems. Even more surprising, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Russian-Israeli billionaire is in Belarus at the request of Ukraine as part of a mediation to end the fighting. If it’s hard to imagine how the Chelsea president has the resources to bring peace to Europe, it seems that Russian sport is at least partially escaping Vladimir Putin.