Our Lady of the Falkland Islands
The UK has shown no signs of budging from the Falkland Islands, but this group of Falkland War veterans hope that Argentine-born Pope Francis will raise the issue of the archipelago’s ownership when he meets Queen Elisabeth II for the first time today.
As part of their quixotic campaign to get the islands back, they carried this Virgin statue, the patroness of Argentina, all the way from Argentina to Rome.
A League of Their Own
After years of mismanagement, Kenyan soccer is finally coming into its own. But can it replace the English Premier League in the heart of Kenyan fans?
Weaving through downtown Nairobi on a recent Saturday afternoon, I entered Lazaru’s Inn, a small bar in the heart of the city centre, to join the Kenya Arsenal Fan Club for the Arsenal v. Everton FA Cup quarterfinal match. By kickoff, there are over 100 Arsenal supporters sitting shoulder to shoulder; the rowdiest contingent is gathered around a screen in the back. Fans wearing red and yellow Arsenal jerseys with names and customized messages such as “The Unbeatable” and “Verminator,” for Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen, emblazoned across the back, are already shushing people. Enthusiasm turns to dismay when the SuperSport channel is changed to the West Brom vs. Manchester United match. The crowd in the back heaves, and people begin hurling insults towards the bar; one fan mutters that the video jockey is an ignorant Manchester United fan. The channel is changed back in enough time for the crowd to roar at Arsenal’s goal in the sixth minute.
Mania for the English Premier League is a nationwide phenomenon that isn’t hindered by ethnic or class divisions; both the country’s poorest and its elite can be found watching a match or arguing its merits. Kenyan football fans primarily rally around Arsenal and Manchester United, though there are a substantial number of Liverpool, Chelsea and, increasingly, Manchester City fans.
The fanaticism has reached, in several high-profile cases, a deadly level. A couple of weeks before Christmas John Macharia, 28, leapt off his seventh-floor apartment balcony in Nairobi and plummeted to his death. Macharia had been a devoted follower of Manchester United, and he killed himself shortly after its shock 1-0 defeat against Newcastle at Old Trafford. Suleiman Omondi, a 29-year-old Arsenal fan, hung himself after his team suffered a defeat against Manchester United, in 2009. After Macharia’s death, Nairobi’s county police commander Benson Kibui urged Kenyan soccer fans to support local teams rather than glamorous European sides such as Manchester United. “They should enjoy the matches,” he said “but they should not commit suicide since life is very precious.”
The Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry dominates social media. Arsenal fans call out “Manure” fans on their performance this season, and Manchester United fans respond with taunts about how Kenyan starlet “Lupita Nyong’o has won more trophies than Arsenal in the last nine years.”
That the vast majority are Arsenal and Manchester United fans is no coincidence. As the local league disintegrated throughout the 90s, people sought their sports entertainment in the English Premier League and Bundesliga highlights shown on local TV. By the end of the 90s, the broadcast of full Premier League matches on Kenya’s SuperSport channel tipped the balance, and as people grew increasingly disenchanted with the local football scene, the fervor for the English league grew.
“During that entire period, Kenyan football was dead, and English football became religion,” says Carol Radull, a leading sports reporter. “I think it was Samuel Eto’o who said ‘you can go to any village, in any part of Africa, kick a ball and make an instant friend.’ Kenyans understand the language of football, we just respect foreign football more than we respect our own.”
Kenyan football has a tainted history of wrangling, scandal and corruption; it was banned by FIFA in 2004 and 2006 because of political meddling. Steve Bloomfield, journalist and author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa summarizes the systemic breakdown in his chapter on the Kenyan national team, the Harambee Stars:
“It was a story of stolen gate receipts, missing FIFA funds and institutional match-rigging. Senior figures in the football administration had been charged with corruption but Kenya’s notoriously creaking justice system had failed to prosecute anyone… The mix of money and power led to a succession of rows over who should control football, arguments which have had a terrible effect on the game itself.”
Just follow the acronyms: The Kenya Football Federation (KFF) became synonymous with corruption and mismanagement, and was rebranded into Football Kenya Limited (FKL,) it is here that the structure becomes increasingly entangled with the KFF and the FKL running parallel for a period of time, before the governing body was once again reimagined as the Football Kenya Federation (FKF)— its current manifestation. The underlying issues however, have remained.
Bob Munro, 71, is completely at ease; his sweater is draped over his shoulders, and his shirtsleeves are rolled up. The waiters, at the popular local restaurant where we have met, refer to him by first name. At first glance, Munro doesn’t strike you an authority on Kenyan football; he has a kindly smile, his glasses are the proper old school kind (round, no frames) and, well, he’s white.
Munro, a native of St. Catharines, Ontario, has come a long way from the ice hockey and baseball of his youth, and is now one of the go-to people on Kenyan football. Munro, who moved to the country as an advisor to the United Nations Environmental Program and UN Habitat in 1985, founded the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) in 1987, and the professional team Mathare United FC in 1994. Both are based in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s sprawling slums, which are home to at least 60% of Nairobi residents. MYSA, a global pioneer in sports for development, was the only league in the stands to have a column for ‘garbage cleaning’ in the points table; the association now has over 1,800 youth football teams, and over 25,000 boys and girls who develop their community through environmental cleanup, HIV/AIDS awareness, and literacy programs. MYSA and Mathare United FC were amongst the 165 nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and are expected to defend their FIFA Football for Hope championship title in Brazil this year.
When I meet up with him at Rustic Bistro, Munro explains what went wrong with Kenyan football, and why the need for independent youth football was so great. “There was a culture of corruption deeply embedded, which was in favor of a few teams at the expense of the others, and where the football officials basically exploited the clubs financially, without attracting money to invest in developing the game,” Munro says.
He adds that besides marriage, and in the worst cases, death, there are only a couple of avenues out of the slums; education and sports. The culture of corruption compromises opportunities for young people in both.
“[Youth] can’t use their football skills to get their families out of poverty, because the football officials are mismanaging the league and stealing the money, but they are also stealing their future. That’s the worst part.”
The corruption, which was basically extortion, made it virtually impossible for Mathare United and other teams to play a fair game, if they managed to play at all. Throughout the 1990s the federation imposed exorbitant costs on the teams; everything from an extraneous $150-$250 membership fee to the approximately $100 per player for ‘players cards’ which were basically pieces of cardboard that players had to fill and attach a photo too. There were additional fees to register for cup finals, and more money required for special players cards for each particular cup.
All this, and teams stood no chance of winning matches away from home.
“The corruption in Kenyan football was so bad, referees would give a penalty to the home team to win a match or get a draw,” Munro says. The situation was dire, but in 1998 the Mathare United team had finally made it into the nationwide league, and they weren’t about to miss out on their opportunity. A friend of Munro’s donated a JVC camera and battery pack to the team, and they went on the offensive.
“In 1998 our team manager was the most fit person on the team,” Munro remembers, laughing. “At the prematch he would go shove [the camera] in the referee’s face, and during the match he was running up and down the field with this camera and battery pack.” The referees, unused to being on video, refrained from blatant rigging, and the team garnered enough points to move forward.
“That camera was broken, it didn’t work,” Munro adds with a conspiratorial grin. “But in the end, it did work.”
The FKF remains far from exemplary; as recently as July 2013, BBC reported that the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission was investigating the FKF for the alleged misappropriation of $410,000, and three Kenyan referees are currently under investigation for fixing a club match in South Africa in 2010. However, there has been one fundamental change in local football: the formation of the Kenya Premier League.
The formation of the league was messy and drawn out. The process began in 2003, when 12 of the top clubs, including Mathare United, resigned from the KFF. The teams had tired of being sidelined after every federation election, and so they set up their own company, and even hosted a “Transparency Cup” to combat corruption, thereby effectively launching the Kenya Premier League. Soon after, FIFA admonished them for being a “renegade league” and told them they had to go back to the federation. In the subsequent years however, after recognizing the league’s competence, and in an effort to overcome the corruption of the federation, FIFA supported the clubs’ decision to retain some autonomy. The Kenya Premier League returned to the fold as an affiliate, with a league run by the clubs, like the English Premier League and South Africa’s Premier Soccer League.
For teams that had once trampled on each other to stay in favor with the federation, and therefore in favor with the referees, the balance of power had shifted. As Munro, who was also one of the league’s founding members, describes it, there was fair play in the new league, and a strict ‘no receipt, no expenditure’ rule. The league had no money, and devised a simple system: the home team paid the referees and kept the gate receipts. Their defining ideology cut straight to the point: those that produce football on the field should make the decisions off the field.
“We’re only opponents for 90 minutes twice a year, the rest of the time we have the same problems, we should be sharing with each other and helping each other, and not let others divide and rule us,” Munro passionately adds.
By 2007-2008 season, the local football scene had changed entirely: football had become professional, and before long, SuperSport was so impressed it negotiated the league’s television rights. Tragically, 2007-2008 was also the year everything changed for Kenya; violence erupted after a disputed election, and the country was in flames. Over a thousand people were killed in the violence and countless others displaced.
In an effort to promote national unity, the Kenya Premier League stepped in to fund and co-chair the national team, the Harambee Stars, in the run up to the World Cup qualifiers. By May 2008 both the government, which was struggling to support the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, and the FKF had said they could not afford to support the national team. With a loan of approximately $150,000, the Kenya Premier League shared the management of the national team with a reluctant FKF.
The league unanimously selected Mathare United coach Francis Kimanzi to coach the national team, and in a single season Kenya rose 52 places in the FIFA ranking from 120th to 68th. This success was short-lived, and with it the hopes that Kenyan players would be eligible to play in Britain; where a national ranking of under 70 is required in order for players to qualify for direct transfer. The federation unceremoniously dismissed Kimanzi in 2008 after he refused to take his players to a lucrative friendly in Egypt. The federation reclaimed control of the national team, and before long Kenya had plummeted in the rankings.
The league however, has continued to grow in strength and popularity. Salaries have gone from an abysmal $35-$58 a month to $233-$349, with the league hoping to reach $814- $1,162, in order to be regionally competitive. The total annual budget of Kenya’s major teams AFC Leopards and Gor Mahia, community based teams founded along ethnic lines, but which have become increasingly diverse with the recent professionalization of the sport, used to be $58,000-$69,000 and have increased tenfold. The two teams used to draw an average of about 2000 people to the stadium in the mid to late 1990s, that number is now an average of 10,000-15,000 fans in the stadium during a derby match.
Viewership of local league matches has also quadrupled since SuperSport bought the rights to broadcast the matches, according to sportscaster Radull. A large SuperSport rig is a staple at all premier league matches.
On a Sunday in late March, one such van is parked outside the Mombasa County Stadium. It is half time, and the stadium is packed. Kenyan football heavyweights Gor Mahia are playing against hometown favorites Bandari in the Kenya Premier League. The score is 1-1, it is 90 degrees, and the humidity is getting to everybody. Gor Mahia’s green and white can be seen across the stands, fans are wearing all kinds of hats: baseball caps (one even has a green and white Mohawk fashioned from straw), cowboy hats, straw hats, and even a green helmet. While Gor Mahia’s fans have made their loyalty as apparent as possible; Mombasa residents have also shown up in force, a sea of blue supporting their home team against the giants of Kenyan football.
The start of the second half is delayed due to what the announcers are calling a crowd invasion; Bandari supporters have spilled past the mesh wire perimeter, and over onto the pitch. People mill about, in what is hardly an invasion, before moving back to the stands. As the game resumes, Gor Mahia fans begin chanting and clapping, and before long Bandari fans wielding vuvuzelas and flags are making an equal amount of noise. Groans of disappointment at almost goals, and shouts of dismay over fouls, of which there are many, fill the air. Bandari’s Victor Majid scores the team’s second goal in the 74th minute, and the crowd begins stomping on the wooden beams, cheering and chanting, and waving flags. As far as they are concerned, the game is over. The remainder of the match is an exercise in stalling from Bandari; kicking the ball out, passing it to their goalkeeper from afar, and taking as many measures as they can to maintain possession of the ball. Gor Mahia fans are muted, worried, as the game draws to a close. A large contingent of green and white are streaming out of the stands before the final whistle is blown. It is yet another successful match, regardless of the winner: everything a league could hope for.
The Kenyan renaissance however, is still its early stages. Competitors are still far ahead in terms of investment, Tanzanian clubs have 7-8 times the annual budget of Kenya’s top teams, and clubs like Congo’s TP Mazembe and Egypt’s Al Ahly and Zamalek have annual budgets of over $11 million, putting them at 30 to 40 times more than the most well-funded Kenyan teams.
“We’re just starting down that road,” says Munro. He argues that Kenyan football can be a billion dollar industry if it attracts the right kind of investment. This, he says, is where the fanaticism around English football becomes problematic.
“Yes, the EPL moved into the vacuum created by the poor state of our football in the 1990s, but they have dominated our TV screens and fans are identifying with foreign teams rather than Kenyan teams, and they are even partnering with local banks who could be investing in local football,” says Munro, referring to the Arsenal debit cards launched in Kenya and Uganda by Imperial Bank last year. “They are siphoning off potential investment in local football, and this issue has to be addressed in global football, especially if by acting that way they destroy football in Africa.”
Back at Lazaru’s Inn, the chanting, stomping and high fives after Arsenal’s fourth goal demonstrate that no matter how fast or far Kenyan football has become, the English Premier League takes precedence, and that although its arrival may have filled a void, it is loved in its own right.
“Kenyans love football,” says an Arsenal fan named Kennedy Gitau, looking jubilant after the victory. “Ever since the EPL came to Kenya, the local game has transformed. For Kenyan football to grow, the clubs will have to look for their fans, and not wait for their fans to come to them.”
Now Batting, Cuba: Q&A with Reynerio Tamayo
When they take the field on Opening Day this afternoon, the Chicago White Sox roster will include no less than four Cuban players, part of an unprecedented wave of Cuban talent in Major League Baseball.
Cuban artist and satirist Reynerio Tamayo spoke to us via email today about Opening Day, Cubans’ love for baseball, and the growing opportunities for Cuban artists in the world.
Greg Hamilton, a 60-year-old Canadian, has been traveling to Myanmar since 1986 to study and play chinlone, a dance/hackysack hybrid that is the country’s national pastime. As one of the sport’s chief evangelizers, he is determined to share it with the world and help it gain the recognition, at home and abroad, he believes it deserves.
Greg Hamilton, a 60-year-old Canadian, has been traveling to Myanmar since 1986 to learn and play chinlone, a dance/hackysack hybrid that is the country’s national pastime. As one of the sport’s chief evangelizers, he is determined to share it with the world and help it gain the recognition, at home and abroad, he believes it deserves.
Loud and Proud
The Gezi Park protests in June 2013 have energized Turkey’s LGBT activists - can they challenge Erdogan at the ballot box?
San Francisco’s Gold Rush Cocktail
Pisco Punch was the drink of Gold Rush San Francisco until Prohibition; here are 5 of the best places to experience its resurgence.
In 1992, Tavriya Simferopol made history when they became the first ever champions of independent Ukraine. The country had emerged a year before from the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a process that demanded not only the restructuring of borders, armies, and civil services, but also of national football leagues. Tavriya, from Crimea, beat Dynamo Kyiv, the giant club from the capital, in the final to win Ukraine’s inaugural competition.
That victory may be the first and last time a club from Crimea ever achieves that feat. Two Sundays ago on March 16, while Tavriya was losing to Dynamo Kyiv, a referendum held in Crimea returned a 96.77% vote in favor of uniting the territory with the Russian Federation.
As if on cue, the Russian Football Union (RFU) has also announced its intention to incorporate the two major Crimean clubs. “In the near future, at working meetings we will prepare a project of the relevant documents” needed to absorb the two clubs, said RFU President Nikolai Tolstykh. “We will hold consultations with FIFA and UEFA, and with the Ukrainian Football Federation.” It looks as though Ukraine’s first national champions may no longer play in Ukraine.
At stake are the two crown jewels of Crimean soccer, currently competing in the Ukrainian Premier League. Tavriya Simferopol, the aforementioned inaugural champions of Ukraine, and FK Sevastopol, recently promoted from the second tier, both regularly entertain clubs from mainland Ukraine.
Tavriya remain one of only three teams to win the Ukrainian Premier League, in the esteemed company of Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk. Despite this history, their recent form remains worrying. Current manager Nikolay Kostov has been unable to arrest their fall into the lower reaches of the league, with attendances at the nearly 20,000-capacity Lokomotiv Stadium waning.
Away from the pitch, financial struggles also threaten the club’s existence. Tavriya’s main financial backer Dmytro Firtash—a titanium magnate whose rise has been closely linked to the now-ousted, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych—was arrested in Austria on suspicion of bribery before posting the largest bail in Austrian history last week. He says the charges, which come after a long FBI investigation, are politically motivated. Either way, the drama has led to speculation about his future willingness to pay the wages and transfer fees of his team, the Krymchyany (Crimeans).
On the pitch at least, FK Sevastopol are on a different trajectory than their neighbors in Simferopol. The club was only founded in 2002, the self-proclaimed “spiritual successor” of previously failed Sevastopol clubs. They found their competitive feet in the Ukrainian third tier, eventually climbing to the second tier in 2007, before reaching the holy grail of the Ukrainian Premier League for the first time in the 2010/11 season. Since then, the club have yo-yoed in and out of the top division, but now sit comfortably in mid-table in the Premier League.
Sevastopol’s success, like Tavriya’s decline, was facilitated by the fortunes of a major financial backer with close ties to Yanukovych. Vadim Novinsky, a native of Russia and a metallurgy billionaire, was awarded Ukrainian citizenship by Yanukovych before winning a 2013 Sevastopol by-election as an independent, then joining the Party of Regions (headed by none other than Yanukovych). Owning a successful soccer club in Ukraine has always been a way to build political support and influence, as illustrated emphatically by Rinat Akhmetov at Shakhtar. Akhmetov first became president of FC Shakhtar after a 1995 bomb attack in the stadium killed his mentor and predecessor. He has since become one of the wealthiest men in the world, intimately connected to Yanukovych’s former political party.
But if key soccer oligarchs are stacked in Yanukovych’s camp, soccer supporters across Ukraine have been involved on both sides of the Maidan uprising and the subsequent Crimean crisis. During the tumult in Kyiv, “ultras” guarded the protestors, protecting them from the pro-government muscle, the Titushky. Dynamo Kyiv’s ultras pushed for a truce between the ultras of Ukraine’s varied and often antagonistic clubs, supported by the ultras of Tavriya and Sevastopol. “We have decided to conclude a truce between the movements of fans of different clubs indefinitely,” the statement read.
The actions of the ultras of both Tavriya and Sevastopol belie the common wisdom about the political leanings of people in heavily ethnic Russian Crimea. Tavriya’s ultras in particular supported Maidan protestors in large numbers.
Tavriya have two main ultras groups, each named after the areas of the stadium that they occupy, Sektor 5 and Sektor 9. Both were noted for their active support for the Maidan, striking away from the norm in an area that has traditionally leaned towards the Party of Regions, the party of pro-Russian Yanukovych. Each of the Sektors has been outspoken on social networks, defending Ukrainian territorial integrity and, by necessary extension, the continued status of Tavriya as a Ukrainian, not Russian, club. Indeed, Sektor 9’s profile photo on the VKontakte network asserts “Crimea is Ukraine” with Sektor 5 even less subtle, mocking up a photograph of Vladimir Putin in the style of Hitler, complete with moustache and fringe.
But the ultras may not be representative of the larger mass of football fans in Crimea. “There is a clear line between normal fans and ultras in Crimea,” warns Denis Trubetskoy, a journalist based in Sevastopol. “Ultras in Sevastopol and Simferopol have a great friendship with Dnipro [Dnipropetrovsk], Dynamo, and Karpaty [Lviv], meaning they’re partly pro-Ukrainian, which is quite unusual in this region. There’s a small split right now, but they’re mostly for Ukrainian territorial integrity and that’s the reason for the protests by Tavriya’s ultras. In Sevastopol, it’s quieter but the situation in the ultras’ scene is quite similar to the situation in Simferopol.” A fractured political situation has generated fractured political views, within sport as well as outside of it.
If Crimea becomes Russian territory, it would be bizarre for Tavriya and Sevastopol to remain in Ukraine’s football association. But any clean switch between national associations will be difficult to manoeuver. UEFA and FIFA (football’s European and global governing bodies respectively) are weighing their options from Switzerland. When politics disrupt the normal functioning of football, the sport’s authorities sometimes act severely; Yugoslavia was barred from participating in the UEFA Euro 1992 tournament after its descent into civil war. But in other situations, FIFA and UEFA accommodated political transformations, allowing the clubs of erstwhile East Germany to be entered into the structure of the West German leagues, while shepherding the emergence of national leagues across the countries of the former Soviet Union.
The annexation of Crimea poses legal and procedural headaches to the governing bodies. Article 84 of the FIFA statutes says that under “exceptional circumstances,” football clubs can switch affiliation from one FIFA association to another. However, “in each case, authorisation must be given by both members, the respective Confederation(s) and by FIFA”. The Russian Football Union will have no trouble authorising the move, but the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) will almost certainly resist the flight of the Crimean clubs. For the time being, the Ukrainian federation is unbending in its resolve to maintain unity of their league.
Trubetskoy suggests that “from the beginning of the Crimean crisis, the leaders of the FFU have tried to make it clear that they are standing for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Ukrainian football.” The Ukrainian parliament and interim government don’t recognise the Crimean referendum as having any legal basis or authority, therefore the FFU’s stance is consistent with the position of the new government in Kyiv. “At the moment, the FFU isn’t really ready to give the Crimean clubs away”, Trubetskoy adds.
Speaking to the Ukrainian football website Tribuna, sport lawyer Markiyan Klyuchkovskiy suggested that FIFA could have the final say and end the impasse. “In exceptional situations, FIFA has powers to make any decision at its own discretion. Theoretically, they can solve [the situation] without the permission of FFU,” he said. Yet FIFA and UEFA are unlikely to act decisively, unwilling to align themselves with either side.
Aleksandr Boytsan, the sporting director and CEO of Tavriya, and Aleksandr Krasnilnikov, the president of Sevastopol, have both released statements in the past week, indicating a willingness to join “the Russian football family.” Krasilnikov seems the more intent of the pair; he voted in the Crimean parliament in favour of uniting with Russia. “We are doing all within our power [to join Russian football],” he said. Though Krasnilnikov was keen to stress that any switch would be done by the book, respecting the Football Federation of Ukraine. Yet “all will depend on the actions of UEFA and FIFA,” he said, possibly urging the game’s governing bodies to circumvent the intransigence of the Ukrainians.
Boytsan has taken a slightly more diplomatic line, again stressing the importance of finding the right legal framework to facilitate any transition. He insisted that the fate of the club was secondary to the fate of the region. “[Once] the republic becomes part of the Russian Federation, it will be possible to talk about the next steps of the sports club”.
As of now, the crisis has led to some disruptions in the league schedule (for instance, Tavriya had to play its home match against Dynamo Kyiv in the capital, instead of in Simferopol), but both Tavriya and Sevastopol will see out the remainder of the Ukrainian league season.
The wrangle over the Crimean clubs will come to a head after the end of the season. Regardless of what the clubs themselves might want, there is no direct precedent for Tavriya and Sevastopol switching into the Russian Football Union.
The two major cases of new leagues being formed in living memory come from the fall of Yugoslavia and the fall of the USSR. Yet neither are direct precedents. Yugoslavia and the USSR ceased to exist, and new countries emerged out of their remnants, each with new corresponding football federations. The recent example of Kosovo, which played its first internationally recognised fixture in March 2014, features a new state being forged out of territory that previously belonged to a still existing state.
The transfer of land from one existing state to another existing state, with both continuing to exist, poses a different challenge altogether. In a way, it’s a throwback to a much earlier era of geopolitics. One of the few, if only, direct precedents for this crisis came nearly a hundred years ago with the reordering of Europe after the First World War. In 1919, France took the region of Alsace-Lorraine, which was home at the time to a football club called Erster Football Club Neudorf, based in the town of Strasbourg. The club had joined the German leagues in 1909, playing on until the war and the suspension of football. Upon the incorporation of Alsace-Lorraine into France, Neudorf changed their name to Racing-Club Strasbourg-Neudorf and joined the French leagues, playing in the French Cup, eventually becoming the Racing Club de Strasbourg we have today. But Strasbourg’s usefulness as a precedent may be limited. The club didn’t become professional until 1933, a year after the French professional league was established, and still twenty-one years before UEFA was founded.
The Sevastopol journalist Trubetskoy claims that FIFA and UEFA will only support the Crimean teams in joining the Russian Football Union if the referendum in Crimea is deemed legitimate. With Kyiv and its western allies denouncing the vote, this seems unlikely. “The biggest problem is the Crimean referendum itself,” Trubetskoy says. “I don’t think that UEFA and FIFA would recognize these events. It’ll be a big problem for Sevastopol and Tavriya to join the [Russian] Premier League.”
If Western leaders have their way, Russia would face several football-related sanctions for its land grab in Crimea. Two U.S. senators have petitioned FIFA President Sepp Blatter to remove Russia from this summer’s upcoming World Cup. Andy Burnham, the UK’s shadow health secretary, has called for Russia’s status as hosts of the 2018 World Cup to be removed, an action that “the ordinary Russian on the street will understand”.
Blatter insists that Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup will not be affected. “The World Cup has been given and voted to Russia and we are going forward with our work,” he said.
Regarding the two Crimean clubs, FIFA and UEFA are grappling with puzzling options. The two governing bodies could pre-empt a move into the Russian Football Union by refusing to allow the clubs to play in the Russian Premier League altogether. If Tavriya and Sevastopol still enter Russian domestic football, UEFA could enforce bans on Russian clubs competing in continental European competitions. Then there is the international option, sounded out above by Western politicians, of stopping Russia from competing in and hosting tournaments.
But will UEFA and FIFA be able to oppose Russia? UEFA accepts bountiful Champions League sponsorship from the Russian state-dominated energy company Gazprom (who could forget the bizarre quote from Gazprom’s CEO marking the deal: "Gazprom is not only the largest gas company in the world, but is also one of those most passionate about football"?) No value was announced, but the deal was estimated to be worth tens of millions by Russia Today . Would UEFA be willing to sanction those from whom they receive so much? And what effect would soccer sanctions have on Russia, after US and EU sanctions have done little to change the course of events?
There’s more to the dilemma facing the Crimean clubs than legal red tape and bureaucracy. Joining the Russian domestic league will pose its own more human challenges. Long accustomed to the conditions of Ukrainian football, fans, journalists and players based in Crimea will be forced to adapt to a new league, new passports, long away trips across the vast continental expanse of Russia, and being cut off from a country they once considered their own.
Much of Ukraine’s football community refuses to accept the possibility of Tavriya and Sevastopol jumping ship to Russia. Oleksandr Tkach, the editor-in-chief of Tribuna, claimed that most of his colleagues were responding to the changing facts on the ground with disbelief and anger. “They are all now going from ‘We don’t believe it’s possible’ to ‘Well, get out if you really want to—hopefully you’ll be put in the third division and have to fly to Vladivostok for away games.’”
What of the players in the midst of this crisis? Ukrainskaya Pravda has reported that the Russian Federal Migration Service has begun authorising Russian passports to Crimean residents, though it is not yet clear whether they will still remain citizens of Ukraine. Crimean-born players might be forced to give up Ukrainian citizenship and become Russian. This would mean that any Crimean players registered for Ukrainian teams outside of the Crimea would become foreigners in what was once their own league. Prominent examples include the Mandzyuk brothers, Vitaliy and Aleksandr, at Dnipro and Ilichivets respectively.
The practicalities of Tavriya and Sevastopol being incorporated into the Russian Football Union also reach a stumbling block when it comes to the union’s rule on foreign players. Russian clubs are allowed seven non-Russians in the first eleven at any given time. The majority of players in both of Crimea’s major clubs are from mainland Ukraine. Should the clubs join the Russian Premier League, most of their players would be classed as “foreign,” requiring a substantial restructuring of playing staff. For the sake of a smooth transition, the Russians could make special exemptions for Tavriya and Sevastopol and class its Ukrainian footballers as Russian.
Football in Crimea may only be a footnote to the current crisis, but it also holds up a mirror to society. Just like the people of Crimea, Tavriya and Sevastopol are on an unprecedented—in our lifetimes—edge between one country and another. The future for all is far from clear.
"The drunk uranium miners produced two cold Bière Nigers from somewhere behind us. They learned I am from Miami and yelled in my ears: ‘50 Cent!’ ‘Rihanna!’ ‘Ferrari!’ Two beers in, both dropped suddenly and at the same time into a slumber so deep that even repeatedly banging their heads into glass windows as we climbed the rocky slope failed to rouse them."
Beyond the Yellowcake Road, from correspondent Hannah Armstrong