Moscow, Feb 24 (EFE).- There is nothing better to silence bombs than a soccer match. A year later, the war in Ukraine continues, but so does football. With alarms and bomb shelters, but the Ukrainian league will resume next week, like every year, after the winter break. There are few fans and very little money, but Shakhtar Donetsk keeps the national flag high.
Meanwhile, its neighbor, Russian football, has been plagued internationally since February 2022. The most pessimistic believe that his ostracism could even keep him out of the 2026 World Cup, which would arm those who advocate giving up Europe and playing in Asia with ammunition.
Russia, a bottomless pit
The outlook for Russian football is bleak. With hardly any foreign stars, little influx of public to the stadiums and dwindling budgets.
“The situation is very difficult. I can’t believe it’s been a year already. We had never experienced anything like it. The level of football in the Russian league has dropped a lot. Many foreigners left,” Alexandr Mostovói, one of the best Russian footballers of the last 30 years who played for Spartak Moscow and Celta de Vigo, told EFE.
In addition to the fact that the clubs are still excluded from Europe, Mostovói recalls that the national team has not been able to play the World Cup in Qatar and will not play the qualifying phase of the Euro Cup in Germany either.
“The danger is that we cannot face the best teams and teams in Europe. In recent months we have played with teams that are in 120th place in the ranking such as Tajikistan or Uzbekistan and we did not even go from a draw to zero ”, he lamented.
To make matters worse, the authorities have contributed to the chaos by imposing on fans the obligation to request a special passport (the Fan ID) to access the stadiums. This measure will affect all teams from March. The reaction of the followers has not been long in coming. If several clubs had rejected this initiative in 2022, now fifteen of the sixteen clubs have boycotted said cards.
The objective of these IDs is to reduce the presence of radical groups, which have exposed Russia on several occasions for its acts of vandalism, the last time at the European Championship in France. However, all the Russian fan associations have agreed to refuse in unison to go to the stadium. “Football is for the fans, not for the police” or “Fans are not criminals,” they say.
Several opponents have denounced that the authorities have rejected their Fan ID applications due to their criticism of the Kremlin. That would confirm opposition suspicions that the move is yet another way to control the population amid Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Be that as it may, the initiative has reduced attendance at league matches in Russia to a minimum, a trend that the local press believes will worsen from next week.
the asian dilemma
The Celtic legend is pessimistic. Mostovoi believes that Russian ostracism could continue for several years. “Five years like the English? Yes, I believe it. But if they tell you ten years, well too, ”he pointed out. “What is happening is not one country against another, but one country (Russia) against the whole world,” he insists.
This fear that the punishment will be extended over time is what precipitated the decision of the Russian Football Union (UFR) to seek an alternative in Asia. With the argument that the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had given the go-ahead, he came within a hair’s breadth of taking that risky step at the end of last December. The UFR’s Asian plan sparked a veritable civil war in Russian football between those for and against. Broadly speaking, the managers were in favor, the footballers neither knew nor answered, and the legends and the press were opposed.
Finally, common sense prevailed. The idea has not been totally ruled out, but several months of consultations with UEFA and FIFA have been opened so that Russia knows what to expect. “I was against it. You have to hold on a bit. If you go to Asia, they won’t let you go back to Europe,” Mostovoi said.
Ukraine weathers the perfect storm
The Ukrainian government understood very well that football is the most important of the least important things. He gave the go-ahead at the start of the championship in August. Despite massive Russian air raids, the 16 Ukrainian teams played 15 of the 30 league games until the December winter break.
The air alarms kept players, coaches and fans in suspense, but the sport overcame fear. As of today, Dnipro-1 leads the standings with 35 points, the almighty Shakhtar is second with 30, the same as the historic Dinamo kyiv.
Dnipro-1 played its matches in the Carpathians, one of the safest places in Ukraine; Shakhtar in Lviv, near Poland; Dinamo and Zorya from Lugansk do it at the legendary Lobanovski stadium in the capital. The exception is the historic Chernomorets, which plays its matches in Odessa itself, a city bathed by the Black Sea and also the object of enemy attacks from time to time.
While Russia does not see the light at the end of the tunnel, the Ukrainian team, which was about to play the World Cup in Qatar, will begin the qualifying phase for the Euro Cup on March 26. He will travel to the mythical Wembley to face England.
Mudryk, a sales miracle
The fights scared away the main foreign stars of the championship. Shakhtar, a sambadrome tuned for years by a dozen Brazilians, was the most affected by this exodus. Luckily, Ukraine has always been a breeding ground for great footballers, from Blokhin to Shevchenko.
The last flashy apparition was that of Mykhailo Mudryk. His extraordinary performance in the Champions League group stage, which included two games against Real Madrid, put him in the spotlight. A Chelsea in trouble did not hesitate to take over his services after paying 100 million euros.
It was a sweet deal for its owner, Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine from whom the pro-Russian authorities have expropriated much of his assets in Donetsk. All in all, Akhmetov decided to dedicate 1 billion hryvnas (about 25 million euros) to help the fighters and their families. The money will be dedicated to medical treatment, psychological help and obtaining prostheses for those wounded in combat.
Akhmetov acknowledged that his dream is to win trophies in Europe with Shakhtar, but admitted that this is impossible now, since “a petty and unfair war against us by the Russian Federation is taking place in Ukraine.” “I am convinced that we will win the war. We will play a friendly match with Chelsea at the Donbas Arena in Donetsk, Ukraine. We must do everything possible to bring that day closer, ”he said.
Mudryk appeared wrapped in a Ukrainian flag in his presentation with Chelsea, a club that belonged until last year to the Russian oligarch Román Abramóvich.