In a leaked recording, oligarchs fear Putin’s land grab could cripple Russian soccer

Brazil’s Hulk could be down and out of Champion’s League thanks to Putin’s power plays.
Brazil’s Hulk could be down and out of Champion’s League thanks to Putin’s power plays.
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
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Meet some nervous oligarchs: They’re rich enough to own professional soccer teams, but they’re Russian enough to know that president Vladimir Putin won’t brook any dissent.

A recording of the top executives in Russia’s professional soccer league was leaked to Novaya Gazeta, and it shows just how sanctions are affecting their main targets. The oligarchs—including the influential tycoon Suleyman Kerimov, the railroad magnate Vladimir Yakunin, CSKA Moskva president Evgeny Giner and Zenit St. Petersburg president Alexander Dyukov—are heard debating whether they can defy Putin’s plan to bring Crimean soccer clubs who formerly played in the Ukrainian professional league into Russia’s.

While the move would be a symbolic confirmation of Russia’s control of the peninsula, it could also incur sanctions from the sport’s governing bodies, including the dismissal of top Russian clubs from lucrative European competition in the Champions’ league, and potentially termination of Russia’s hosting duties for the 2018 World Cup and participation on other international tournaments.

Giner, talking about the head of the soccer association, discussed the owners’ feelings of powerlessness in the face of Putin’s wishes (translated from the Russian): “You see, he has nothing to lose. But I have a club to support. And tomorrow they’ll pull us from 2018. Why? Because a few wise people here, in the guise of presidents, ask us to put a tick for every ‘for’ or ‘against.’ And voilà, sanctions.”

For soccer fans, the ejection of the top two Russian clubs from the Champions’ league could mean that some international superstars, like Brazil’s Hulk, Argentina’s Ezequiel Garay and (ironically) Ukraine’s Anatoliy Tymohchuk will be blocked from professional soccer’s biggest stage, which could make it harder for the league to attract foreign stars in the future. Still, the owners seemed less concerned about losing the professional league than losing the World Cup, an occasion where crony capitalists could reap a bonanza—Russia’s 2014 Olympics were among the costliest in history and attracted many allegations of contract-padding and corruption.

But the ultimate decision of the council—to seek political advice from Putin’s top aides about how to approach the issue—isn’t just a problem for FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, which technically prohibits political influence on national soccer federations that should be part of civil society. (Already, there are questions about the cozy relationship between FIFA and Russian political leadership.)

It’s also a problem for the West’s sanctions strategy, which has attempted to avoid the mistakes made during efforts to punish Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In those cases, blanket sanctions actually empowered the targeted leaders to control the economy.

This time, restrictions have been aimed only against businesses that cozy up to the state, not all Russian trade, but despite the grumbling heard on the recording, the sanctions don’t appear to have been successful at driving a wedge between Putin and the oligarchs.

“I’ve built my company over 25 years, market capitalization is now $30 billion,” Sergei Galitisky, a grocery store magnate and owner of the Krasnodar soccer club, told his fellow owners in the recording. “The fact that we’ll all fall under sanctions is in my view beyond any doubt. And that the market capitalization of my company could fall by 80% and be worth $7 billion instead of $30…that’s almost a given, but it’s my personal issue. But that’s a huge number. I employ 250,000 people, we’re the biggest private company in Russia. But I understand that we’re citizens of this country—we all understand it. We will always choose our country over anything else….but maybe there are some possible middle-of-the-road solutions?”

Even if they wish for a middle path, it seems that Russia’s wealthiest won’t take any action beyond complaining about Putin’s actions in (supposedly) private conversations.