While European political leaders are trying to find suitable responses to Russia’s quiet annexion of Crimea, going so far as to cancel the planned G8 meeting in Sochi, European football leaders carry on business as usual. In living rooms all across the continent this week’s broadcasts of the Champions League quarter finals will be opened by a video clip promoting … Gazprom. ‘We light up the football!’, it proclaims, to the triumphant sounds of Tchaikowsky’s piano concerto. From Moscow with love…
Of course, ‘football should not be mixed with politics’, as the mantra of all institutional actors in international football has been going for decades. Except one: Alexei Sorokin, former executive manager of the Russian football federation, was quoted saying very clearly ‘Football is foreign policy!’, when presenting the five-year plan’ (!) that was established in 2008 with the aim of bringing Russian football to world elite level. In the meantime Russia has been awarded the 2018 World Cup and Sorokin has been appointed general director of the organising committee.
How unpolitical can huge state-controlled companies capable of blackmailing entire nation-states actually be? How unpolitical are payrolls on which you find the likes of Gerhard Schröder, who signed up as chairman of the board for a pipeline venture controlled by Gazprom, as soon as he had left office? How can spending an estimated minimum of 50 million Euros per annum in sponsoring a sports event be a simple marketing campaign? Especially for a company that, unlike Heineken, Ford, Master Card, UniCredit and Sony, UEFA’s five other official partners, does not even reach out to end consumers that actually have a choice?
In signing the agreement with UEFA, Gazprom expressed its certainty that ‘this cooperation will improve Gazprom’s reputation and advance our breand awareness to a fundamentally new level on the global scale’. In other words such investments do not aim at something as trivial as increasing sales, but are part of a soft power strategy. The attempts to build a strong brand recognition through links with other popular brands such as the Champions League are no doubt expected to position Gazprom as just another corporate entity and ecplise the incestuous links with the Russian government and its leader.
For Clemens Tönnies, successful entrepreneur in the German meat processing industry and president of the highly popular football club Schalke 04, the fact that his players promote Gazprom on their jerseys for 15 million Euros per year, is a ‘perfectly normal business relation’. Probably as normal as the social dumping in his Westphalian slaughterhouses without minimum wage that are reported to build their benefits on the exploitation of East European workers supplied by dubious employment agencies.
Football fans are reputed for not caring where the money comes from as long as it keeps ‘their’ club competitive. True: when Gazprom – now also ‘Global Energy Partner’ of Chelsea FC, whatever that means – signed its contract with Schalke in 2006 (less than a year after the Schröder deal), there were only some mild short-lived protests among some supporter groups. The Crimea crisis may be changing this: Clemens Tönnies’ personal ‘friendship’ with Vladimir Putin – which as the FAZ reports opened doors for him to build five meat processing plants in Russia – starts to be seen as a problem rather than an asset. Supporter groups such as the influential fanzine ‘Schalke Unser’ are openly opposing a planned courtesy visit of their team to Putin. Also on their list for the next general assembly: a change in the club’s statutes, integrating a clear statement against homophobia. Which in turn would enable them to ask why Schalke works with a sponsor that belongs to a state where homophobia has become legal.
The chances of these supporter groups to actually change something are low. There is little doubt that Schalke will continue to play with Gazprom on their jerseys for forthcoming years and that the fans themselves will continue to participate in the popular annual ‘Gazprom fan clubs’ tournament. But change starts with raising awareness. And it would be a first modest success to raise awareness about the fact that some deals are not really ‘business as usual’.
Albrecht Sonntag, Centre for European Integration, ESSCA School of Management