MARTIN SAMUEL: Kick Russia out of Europe… now that's a real sanction

MARTIN SAMUEL: Kick Russia out of Europe… now that's a real sanction

March 22, 2022

MARTIN SAMUEL: Kick Russia out of the European game and the continent where it has waged war, and let Gianni Infantino keep his tainted friendship with Vladimir Putin… expulsion from all UEFA competitions would be a REAL sanction

  • What if UEFA expelled Russian football entirely from the European game?
  • Not to remove them from the sport, but to exile them from the continent
  • A UEFA sanction would hurt because Russian fans don’t recognise Asia as home 
  • Full expulsion from UEFA and European competition remains a powerful weapon 
  • As sanctions are designed to make Vladimir Putin unpopular, this is the way 

Russian football is European football. Their clubs, their national team, their heroes — Russia made its home in the European game. So, if we’re talking sanctions, what if UEFA expelled Russian football entirely?

Not to remove them from the sport, but to exile them from the continent where Russia has waged its war. Let FIFA’s Gianni Infantino keep his tainted friendship with Vladimir Putin. Let Russia play in future World Cups, if that is his craven wish. Just not as a European entrant.

There can be a way back into the global game for Russian footballers and Russian clubs, but Europe does not have to facilitate it. UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League, their Euros and Nations League, plus European World Cup qualifiers. This war will end one day and we will be expected to live with their return.

UEFA can impose another real sanction on Russia by kicking them out of European football

Yet why should Russian football get to be part of the continent in which it has murdered innocents? And is this such an outlandish thought? Why has it not been discussed? Why, seemingly, has this most powerful sanction not even crossed UEFA’s mind?

Where could Russia play? Asia, if their federation would have them. After all, 77 per cent of Russia’s landmass is not in Europe. It’s Asian; a part of the world that — if the United Nations vote on Russian aggression in Ukraine is any indicator — is more relaxed about Putin’s foreign policy than we are here.

While 75 per cent of their population live in European territory, that doesn’t mean they could no longer compete for their country. Russian clubs could win continental championships and try to map a path to the World Cup in 2026. They just couldn’t do it via European tournaments.

There are precedents here. Kazakhstan is another vast country, spanning continents. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, it was part of the Asian Football Confederation, taking part in the Asian Cup in 1996 and 2000, before joining UEFA in 2002.

Israel is most certainly a country in Asia but is not recognised by some of the other nations in the region, so participates as a member of UEFA. Australia, tired of a lack of competition in the Oceania region, left the confederation for Asia in 2006. 

Let FIFA’s Gianni Infantino (left) keep his tainted friendship with Vladimir Putin (right)

Russia, as the Soviet Union, did not even enter the World Cup as a UEFA member until 1958; at the time they could just as easily have joined the AFC. It has been in existence since 1954. 

And Russia is undoubtedly more fondly received outside Europe right now. Russia and its ally Belarus aside, only Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan of UEFA member nations — but all three with Asian territory — did not vote with the UN resolution condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Yet Syria, North Korea, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Vietnam, Turkmenistan, India and Uzbekistan, either voted no, did not vote, or abstained. That’s close to one-third of the AFC membership.

A UEFA sanction would hurt because followers of Russian football do not recognise Asia as home. Clubs from the East lack success and rarely make it into European competitions. PSV Eindhoven drew the short straw of a Europa League qualifier against Sibir Novosibirsk — a four-hour flight from Moscow — in 2010 but Russian football is western football, and it would be felt domestically if UEFA barred Russia.

As sanctions are designed to make Putin unpopular, this is the way. Of the 65 Russian entrants to have competed in the European Cup or Champions League, all but seven were from either Moscow or St Petersburg. In those cities, they do not measure themselves against Al-Hilal, Ulsan Hyundai or Urawa Red Diamonds.

One imagines, however, that expelling Russia has not even been on the agenda of UEFA, who had to be weaned off that lovely Gazprom money by popular opinion when war broke out. They were slow to sanction the country at all when the invasion began and didn’t even refer to Russia’s activity in Ukraine in negative terms at first.

UEFA had to be weaned off that lovely Gazprom money by popular opinion when war broke out

So this option won’t have registered. Yet, what a message it would send. No more lucrative participation for Russian clubs in the Champions League, no more European Championships, no more prestigious World Cup qualifiers against the world’s best football nations and players.

The AFC has all of these competitions and opportunities, but nowhere near the cache. That’s why Kazakhstan switched. Recent Kazakh opponents in UEFA competitions have included France, Belgium, Denmark and Holland; for their clubs, Manchester United, Celtic and Red Star Belgrade. Their Asian Cup qualifiers were against Syria, Qatar, Jordan, Palestine and Pakistan.

Russia wants to be a western nation in purely football terms. The easternmost team in their top division is FC Ural Yekaterinburg. From there, it is still 3,146 miles to Vladivostok in Russia’s far east. Do not imagine the 2018 World Cup was spread across Russia, either. 

That never went farther towards Asia than Yekaterinburg again. Russian football identifies with UEFA and Europe. Luch Vladivostok used to compete in the top division but were widely unpopular. ‘They should play in Japan,’ sneered national goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev when CSKA Moscow lost 4-0 there in 2007. Moscow is a nine-hour flight away.

Let Russia play in future World Cups, if that is his craven wish. Just not as a European entrant

A year earlier, three Zenit St Petersburg fans drove a 20-year-old Honda 9,320 miles for Vladivostok away. Zenit lost 2-0 and, upon leaving, their vehicle broke down. It took them a week to get home, via the Trans-Siberian railway. On arrival, Zenit presented them with a new car.

So, in the West’s soft, hybrid, sanctions-based war on Russia, expulsion from UEFA remains a powerful weapon. They won’t use it, of course, because one day war will be history and football is too in thrall to all that lovely petro-wealth. 

Still, international week looms, so expect a nice line in flags and empty slogans from UEFA. They’ll have had plenty of discussions about those, you can guarantee.

Saudis missed Stanford trick

It wasn’t the $20million that made the Allen Stanford cricket match so compelling. It was the nothing. A fortune to the winners, zero for the losers. That was interesting. Sport hands out so much money to also-rans, but here was genuine jeopardy. 

So the £19m purse for the first event of the Saudi Super Golf League is not the game-changer the organisers fondly imagine. It’s more of the same. Big money for the winner, good money for the rest.

Drive for show, putt for dough, is the saying — but everyone putts for dough in PGA events. And they will in the Saudi League, too. It’s the same format, but without the biggest names. What’s super about that? 

United might as well make Ronaldo boss!

A personal view, but if an elite football club cannot play like an elite football club, and cannot succeed like an elite football club, they should at least entertain us all and add to what Samuel Johnson called the gaiety of nations.

To that end, Manchester United should give the manager’s job to Cristiano Ronaldo. Be honest, who wouldn’t pay to watch that?

Who wouldn’t pay to watch Cristiano Ronaldo as the next manager of Manchester United?

Why is ‘Arsenal fan’ Ek doing Barca a favour?

Elite clubs are no longer simply pitted against their domestic rivals. Arsenal are no longer defined by how they measure against Tottenham, or Liverpool, but by results against the best of Europe, too. 

After a run of defeats by Bayern Munich under Arsene Wenger, the German club mocked, ‘Can we play you every week?’ on their English-speaking Twitter feed. Quite a few Chelsea fans now have a grudge against Barcelona far greater than the one with Fulham, down the road.

So what to make of Spotify’s deal with the Catalans, including naming rights for the Nou Camp and lucrative concerts promoted across their streaming platform? Wasn’t Arsenal supposed to be the love of owner Daniel Ek’s life? 

So why is he solving financial problems at Barcelona — who will again be a rival, if Mikel Arteta can get Arsenal into the Champions League next season? Arsenal have won one of nine meetings with Barca since 1999; the Spanish club have taken some of their best players at crucial times, too. 

Why would Ek give them a helping hand? Of course, it’s just business. Even so, you wouldn’t see Delia Smith promoting a range of recipes on the front of the shirts at Ipswich Town.

 Spotify CEO Daniel Ek looked to buy Arsenal but has now sponsored Barcelona’s stadium

Osaka doesn’t suck – but her prep does

Naomi Osaka’s latest emotional episode came and went very quickly. There is a reason for that. The idiot in the crowd who reduced her to tears was a woman. Had it been a male spectator we would still be hearing about the bullying of female athletes, much as we did when a columnist from the Cincinnati Enquirer asked Osaka a balanced, reasonable question last year and it also made her cry. Turns out, as hecklers go, women are as dumb as men. Who knew?

The pain-inducing interruption at Indian Wells was a gormless, humourless shout of ‘Naomi, you suck’. Osaka then twice asked to address the court via the umpire’s microphone and was refused. Understandably so. It’s a tennis match, not a public forum. Imagine Nick Kyrgios with access to an amplification device on demand.

The strangest revelation, however, was that Osaka claimed to be upset having previously watched footage of the Indian Wells crowd turning on the Williams sisters, and their father Richard, at the event in 2001. 

It is a hugely unsavoury episode, clearly racist in tone, and the tournament was the loser because neither sister returned for 14 years. Yet why watch that in preparation? Most particularly, why watch that if you are a fragile soul and likely to take it to heart?

Osaka missed the point. The Williams sisters triumphed. They did so by becoming two of the greatest tennis players the world has ever seen; in Serena’s case, arguably the greatest. It was an unhappy moment, but with a very happy ending. Every tournament the Williams’ won — and there were many — the racists of Indian Wells lost.

If Osaka couldn’t see that, what was she watching it for? How does that help a plainly vulnerable individual navigate a cruel world? Osaka is a wonderful tennis player who has won a Grand Slam tournament in each of the last four years. She most certainly does not suck. The way she spends her downtime between matches, however, might. 

Naomi Osaka was reduced to tears by a heckler during Saturday night’s Indian Wells defeat

Juventus are not so Super anymore

There is no more satisfying result than Juventus, architects of the Super League, getting turned over 4-1 on aggregate by Villarreal, just the type of club they would have excluded. No wonder the talentless Andrea Agnelli wanted a closed shop. 

Everton suitors on a hiding to nothing

Bill Hicks, the long dead comedian, had a routine about the way some women are attracted to the worst men. Not just liars, cheaters, beaters — but serial killers like Ted Bundy, who had groupies inside and outside the courtroom when he was sentenced to death for the murders of more than 30 women in 1980.

Hicks concluded it was about ego and being the partner who could make a dark soul happy. He reckoned the devil himself would have no trouble finding female companionship on earth. He even imagined the conversation.

‘But he’s Satan…’

‘You don’t know him like I do…’

‘He’s the Prince of Darkness…’

‘I can change him…’

It’s a bit like Everton. How many managers will the club burn before that penny drops? Frank Lampard went in a bright, young coach, credited with helping build the team that won the Champions League at Chelsea, by seeing the potential in young players such as Reece James and Mason Mount. 

How many managers will Everton burn, like Frank Lampard, before that penny drops?

Despite Thursday night’s result, there remains a very real fear he could take Everton into the Championship, or even get the sack before this happens. Everton could spell the end of a promising managerial career. 

Equally, Rafa Benitez was an experienced coach, a pragmatist and wise old head, who won the Champions League with an ordinary Liverpool squad and kept Newcastle afloat in the Premier League without recourse to the wealth of Saudi Arabia. He barely made it past Christmas at Goodison Park.

Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t wait to get out; while Ronald Koeman and Roberto Martinez both left under a cloud, then landed better jobs elsewhere. Marco Silva, another bust on Merseyside, is now leading the Championship with Fulham. These are gifted managers.

Yet, whatever fate has in store for Lampard, when it is his time there will almost certainly be a queue to succeed him, like the women in line to meet Bundy. It’s Everton; everyone thinks they can change them; they all think they’re the one.

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