Putin could be stripped of hosting the Super Bowl of Europe

February 23, 2022, 4:03 PM UTC

Political pressure is building on Europe’s top soccer body, the UEFA, to renege on a deal with St. Petersburg to host the Champions League final in May in light of Russia’s slow-motion invasion of eastern Ukraine.

An estimated 400 million people tune in to watch the annual pinnacle of club competition in Europe, a good four times the number of viewers for the Super Bowl. Major corporations like Heineken, Mastercard, and FedEx jockey to sponsor it given the enormous advertising exposure on match day.

This year, bragging rights are set to go to Vladimir Putin’s hometown club, FC Zenit St. Petersburg, and its Gazprom Arena, a decision now under increasing scrutiny following the Kremlin’s violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and breach of cease-fire terms over the disputed Donbas region.

On Wednesday, U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that under no circumstances should the West be seen to condone Russia’s breach of international law, and that included allowing St. Petersburg to host the Champions League final on May 28. 

“I’m very clear it shouldn’t be” held there, Truss told Sky television. “All we can do to disassociate ourselves from Russia and this appalling regime, we should do now.”

News website Euractiv also reported a number of members of the European Parliament had written to the UEFA demanding it change venue in light of this week’s events. 

The situation is highly sensitive for the UEFA, given that Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant, is one of eight global sponsors of the Champions League. Europe’s ruling soccer body already got a black eye over its equivocal stance toward LGBTQ+ rights during last summer’s European Championship, held every four years to determine the best national side. 

In a statement to Fortune, the UEFA said it was “constantly and closely monitoring the situation,” and that while it had no further comment at this time, “any decision would be made in due course if necessary.”

Losing the rights to host the match would be the latest punishment visited on Putin’s Russia since it decided to formally recognize on Monday the independence of two breakaway states within sovereign Ukrainian territory. 

A first round of sanctions were announced on Tuesday, with Western allies saying they were coordinating among one another further escalations in economic measures as a deterrent should the situation deteriorate. 

Gazprom ties

European football nurtures long-standing ties to Putin’s clique, including Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. The owner of the English Chelsea FC is a prominent member of a list of 35 individuals identified by opposition leader Alexei Navalny as primarily responsible for looting the Russian state and repressing human rights in the country thanks to their close ties to Putin. 

While the U.K. government has been among the most vocal opponents of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, London is home to several oligarchs despite controversies such as the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal on U.K. soil.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson even extended a lifetime peerage to the wealthy son of a KGB agent turned Russian media mogul, Evgeny Lebedev, who now sits in the unelected House of Lords as a result, and bears the abbreviated title of Baron of Hampton and Siberia, as granted to him by Queen Elizabeth II.

Asked if roughly 1.9 million British pounds collected from Russian donors since Johnson took office should be returned, Truss said “all of those donations are properly declared.” 

Gazprom, which controls Zenit St. Petersburg, is also linked to other European clubs including as a shirt sponsor for Schalke 04, a former top-flight Bundesliga side from the coal mining heartland of western Germany, with a large fan base. 

Schalke said in a statement to Fortune it was acutely aware of its unique status among the country’s athletic clubs, adding it was “greatly concerned” by the events playing out in Ukraine and had raised the issue with its main sponsor.

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