UEFA will strip St. Petersburg of Champions League final
By Tariq Panja
European soccer’s governing body is convening an emergency meeting of its top board members Friday after deciding to strip St. Petersburg, Russia, from hosting the Champions League final, the biggest club game of the year, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The governing body, UEFA, had resisted taking the measure earlier this week, even after the country moved into two rebel-held parts of Ukraine and after President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had formally recognized them as independent republics. UEFA took the measure after Russia’s invasion began early Thursday.
The game, on May 28, was to be played in a stadium built ahead of the 2018 World Cup and financed by Russian energy giant Gazprom, a major UEFA sponsor since 2012. In 2021, UEFA added Gazprom’s chair, Alexander Dyukov, to its board, known as the Executive Committee. It is unclear if Dyukov will attend the meeting, which will be a video call.
UEFA said in a statement that its president, Aleksander Ceferin, a Slovene lawyer, decided to call for the meeting “following the evolution of the situation between Russia and Ukraine in the last 24 hours.”
“UEFA shares the international community’s significant concern for the security situation developing in Europe and strongly condemns the ongoing Russian military invasion in Ukraine,” it said.
Speculation began this week about potential sites for a relocated game, with the British news media calling for it to be played in London. Last year’s final was played between two English teams, Manchester City and Chelsea, which is bankrolled by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
The Champions League final has faced disruption since the outbreak of the coronavirus, with the tournament’s denouement played out in Portugal for two straight years. Other sites remain a possibility, including Istanbul, which had to make do with hosting rights for 2023 after giving up the final game in 2020 and 2021.
The British government had been the most vocal in calling for the game to be taken away from Russia, with officials actively lobbying soccer authorities.
“I have serious concerns about the sporting events due to be held in Russia, such as the Champions League final, and will discuss with the relevant governing bodies,” Nadine Dorries, the British government minister responsible for sports, wrote on Twitter.
Fan groups, too, had called for the game’s relocation.
“On this tragic day, our thoughts are with everyone in Ukraine, our friends, colleagues, members, & their loved ones,” the Fans Supporters Europe group tweeted hours after Russia’s invasion had started. “Given the events unfolding, we expect an imminent announcement from UEFA on the relocation of the Champions League final.”
Soccer federations from Poland, Czech Republic and Sweden have written to FIFA calling for Russia to be banned from hosting playoff games for the Qatar World Cup. Poland is due to meet Russia in Moscow next month, and if Russia wins, it will face a final eliminator against the winner of the game between the Czechs and Sweden also in Russia.
Gazprom’s influence extends beyond UEFA. Officials from the company — which controls Russia’s top club, FC Zenit — sit in other influential positions, like the board of the European Club Association, a representative group for top clubs. Gazprom has since 2007 also sponsored one of Germany’s leading teams, Schalke, an association that now appears to be at an end.
“Following recent developments, FC Schalke 04 have decided to remove the logo of main sponsor GAZPROM from the club’s shirts. It will be replaced by lettering reading ‘Schalke 04’ instead,” the club said on Twitter on Thursday.
UEFA will also decide on the fate of teams from Russia still involved in its competitions. Zenit was on Thursday to play the second game of its two-leg playoff against Real Betis in Spain in the Europa League, Europe’s second-tier club tournament.
The crisis has also led to mounting speculation about the future of Abramovich’s decade-long ownership of Chelsea. He was not named in a first tranche of Russian billionaires subject to British government sanctions this week. But some lawmakers said that Abramovich, as well as Alisher Usmanov, a billionaire whose holding company USM is the biggest partner of another Premier League team, Everton, should be added to the sanctions list.
Chris Bryant, a lawmaker in the opposition Labour Party, told Parliament on Thursday that Abramovich should be “no longer able to own a football club in this country.”
Bryant criticized the government for allowing Abramovich to continue doing business in Britain after saying he had seen official government documents from 2019 that described the Russian as having “links to the Russian state and his public association with corrupt activity and practices.”
“That is nearly three years ago and yet remarkably little has been done in relation,” Bryant said.
Abramovich previously faced difficulties entering Britain after new visa restrictions were imposed in 2018. A spokesman for Chelsea declined to comment.