How the war in Ukraine will change the sports world

Subscribe to our letters Keep up to date with news from the great continent

We saw him with his shirt open, crumpled, after the away win in Santiago Bernabeu. His face, showing no sign of satisfaction, a reproachful eyebrow, had instinctively reminded us of a Soviet ambassador to the UN—as stern as a statue of dark marble. “A great player, Dirk Kuyt, said there was no place for the sheriff in the Champions League. I am very happy that I destroyed his perfect world. Only then did a grin escaped, as if destruction was the only thing that brought him any relief These statements seemed perfectly consistent to the coach of Sheriff Tiraspol, a team from an unrecognized state – Transnistria – founded by a former KGB agent who had just won a surprise victory in one of the institutions of European football, Real Madrid His rigor and the enthusiasm with which he threw our arrogance in our faces seemed to us the perfect metaphor for a world violently trying to affirm its existence.

But we didn’t understand. A few days ago we heard that Yuriy Vernydub had joined the Ukrainian army to fight the Russian invasion. We learned this from a photo that appeared on Twitter, showing him next to two of his comrades, in camouflage suits and a smiling, relaxed face, which looks more like a caricature than an icon. A few days earlier, after being knocked out of the Europa League by Braga on penalties, he had expressed concern about what happened: “My family is in Ukraine, I will do everything I can to get back to them. proud of the people who are fighting to defend our country”. How does the ease with which we bias distant worlds into our preconceptions affect the course of events?

Never before has a war been so denounced in the media. And that’s partly thanks to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian who felt comfortable in his new role as a warlord, and who apparently understood that in 2022, images matter. The involvement of sports at this stage was perhaps inevitable. Vernydub is just the latest in a long list of athletes who have gone to the front, including the names of Oleksandr Usyk, heavyweight boxing champion, Vasyl Lomachenko, former Olympic boxing champion, Serhiy Stakhovsky, former tennis player, Volodymyr Bezsonov, former Dinamo Kiev football player – they all joined the Ukrainian army. We also saw the t-shirt of Atalanta playmaker Ruslan Malinovskyi, who called for Olympiacos to end the war after his double, and the tears of Manchester City winger Oleksandr Zinchenko during the rain of applause in support. of Ukraine at Goodison Park, shortly before kissing his compatriot Vitaliy Mykolenko from Everton. Finally, of course, the Klitschko brothers, former boxing champions who have been involved in the country’s politics for years. Vitali has been mayor of Kiev since 2014 and we have grown accustomed to seeing him on our televisions – the bandages are gone – telling us day by day how the Russian attack on the city is going.

Never before has a war been so denounced in the media. The involvement of sports at this stage was perhaps inevitable.

Dario Saltari

But Ukraine has managed to involve the sporting world far beyond its borders in a way that is truly unprecedented, if not nearly so. It all started with the decision of the International Olympic Committee to exclude athletes, delegations and sports officials from Russia and Belarus because of the aggression, and if that was not possible, to admit them without national symbols, such as colours, flags and national anthems – as originally planned for the Winter Paralympics in Beijing, which later decided to exclude the two countries altogether. As a result, the entire sports world hastened to cut all ties with Russia. The FIA ​​has canceled the Sochi Grand Prix. The International Cycling Union has banned the Gazprom RusVelo team from all competitions. The Tennis Union has excluded Russia and Belarus from the Davis Cup. Euroleague basketball has suspended Russian teams CSKA Moscow, Unics Kazan and Zenit St. Petersburg, and there are even plans to cancel their results. Even football has evolved with an unusual solidity for a sport that hosted its largest domestic competition in Russia less than four years ago. FIFA kicked the Russian national team out of the World Cup qualifiers in Qatar, UEFA ousted Spartak Moscow from the Europa League round of 16, giving Red Bull Leipzig direct access to the quarter-finals.

[Depuis l’invasion de la Russie de l’Ukraine, avec nos cartes, nos analyses et nos traductions commentées nous avons aidé plus de 1,5 millions de personnes à comprendre les transformations géopolitiques de cette séquence. Si vous trouvez notre travail utile et vous pensez qu’il mérite d’être soutenu, vous pouvez vous abonner ici.]

However, war is not only about teams no longer meeting in a match – which essentially remains the metaphorical representation of a battle – but also and above all about the severing of links between worlds and people. For example, the one between UEFA and Gazprom, which guaranteed the European Football Association for an amount of about 40 million euros per season. But also that between Daniel Hackett and CSKA Moscow in basketball, or that, even more controversially, between Yaroslav Rakitskiy and the Zenith of Saint Petersburg in football. Ukraine’s long-time standard-bearer of Shakhtar Donetsk, Rakitskiy got caught up in his country’s crisis when he decided to join Zenit Saint Petersburg, a team controlled by Gazprom and the political apparatus surrounding Vladimir Putin. Rakitskiy had already been criticized in his country since the beginning of the war in Donbass for his scenes of silence during the Ukrainian national anthem in the national team, but the move to Russia, and in such an important team, broke for good relations, and Ukraine never called it back. In November 2019, Rakitskyi took to Instagram to complain about the politicization of football that led to his exclusion from the national team; a few days ago, he returned to the platform to make a statement of support for his country, with a photo of the yellow-blue flag and the caption: “I’m Ukrainian! The message was later deleted. A few days later, he agreed with the Zénith to terminate his contract.

© AP Photo/Jon Super

Today, Russia, like Rakitskiy, is isolated, it no longer has a place in the world. One wonders whether these sanctions would have any effect: perhaps to end the war or even make Putin capitulate. Since the days of apartheid in South Africa, a country has never been so alone in the world, and never has the sports world been so united in harnessing its power to change reality. But at the time, the expulsion from the IOC came at the end of a long list of boycotts and other measures, and of a long history of political and diplomatic isolation. After the end of apartheid, South Africa’s sport was given more credit than it could have had, and it is difficult today to put this situation on the present, to ask what effect isolation will have on Russia.

It is difficult, not only because we live in a historic moment for Russia, but also because we may have to ask ourselves what changes this call from the IOC will bring to the sport that has responded so quickly. Before Putin sent his tanks to Ukraine, it seemed impossible that sport could be so united and committed to supporting a political cause. And this despite the fact that the debate had tried to force him to overcome the historic distrust in the political arena that De Coubertin had initially instilled in him. It is only in recent years that the long and heated discussions about boycotting the World Cup in Qatar have taken place, marred first by scandals over possible corruption to obtain it and then by the lack of respect for human rights in the country. Then the boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which ultimately took on only a very diplomatic form in a climate of a new cold war long before the very hot war we live in today. Will the war in Ukraine make sport more sensitive to these discussions, more willing to take action on the battles it involves?

Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian that ‘football is only now beginning to wake up to the stench of its own money’. The reference was mainly to Roman Abramovich, the obscure billionaire who is one of Putin’s closest associates and who, in the face of the wave of European sanctions against Russia, chose to step aside and relinquish his position as Chelsea chairman. trying to sell it now. The same fate will likely be in store for Alisher Usmanov, one of Everton’s major backers through MegaFon sponsorship, who was promptly removed from Goodison Park signs and fencing shortly before Zinchenko and Mykolenko kissed in the middle.

Before Putin sent his tanks to Ukraine, it seemed impossible that sport could be so united and committed to supporting a political cause.

Dario Saltari

In times of war, the enemy’s money is the only dirty thing. We know, but when peace returns to Ukraine, what will be left of these purges?

It was only a few weeks ago that Newcastle’s new Saudi owner was hotly debated in the Premier League, but was eventually left free to pump millions into the English Premier League. You may wonder if football after the war in Ukraine will have a sharper nose to even smell money that doesn’t come from Russia. Will there still be outrage to ask what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen? In response to many people asking him to condemn the Russian war, and to Mykolenko himself for insulting him by calling him a “dog that keeps silent”, Zenith Saint Petersburg striker Artem Dzyuba responded with a lengthy statement in the Engels on Instagram, in which he complained about the double standards that he says the sports world uses in a hypocritical way. “Why does everyone always say that sport should have nothing to do with politics, but at the first opportunity, when Russia is involved, this principle is completely forgotten? »

Whether out of sensitivity or political expediency in the face of a world increasingly divided into opposing blocs, sport could be forced to reverse the process that has made fortunes in recent years by moving from Europe around the world. to export. Especially for football — which, first with Havelange, then with Blatter, and finally with Infantino, had grown accustomed to looking no one in the face to become a global spectacle — this war could represent a bigger turning point than it seems now. .