Champions League Final Moved From St. Petersburg to Paris After Ukraine Invasion
UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, said Thursday that the Champions League final, the biggest match in European club soccer, will not be played in St. Petersburg, Russia. UEFA stripped Russia of hosting honors following the Russian-led invasion of Ukraine early Thursday.
The game, set for May 28, was to be played in a stadium financed by the Russian energy giant Gazprom, one of UEFA’s major sponsors.
Following an emergency board meeting on Friday, UEFA picked Paris as the alternative location for the match, which will be held in the 80,000-seat Stade de France stadium.
“UEFA wishes to express its thanks and appreciation to French Republic President Emmanuel Macron for his personal support and commitment to have European club football’s most prestigious game moved to France at a time of unparalleled crisis,” the group said in a statement. “Together with the French government, UEFA will fully support multi-stakeholder efforts to ensure the provision of rescue for football players and their families in Ukraine who face dire human suffering, destruction and displacement.”
UEFA had long resisted taking any measure to sanction Russia even when, earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized two rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine as independent republics and moved armed forces into the region.
The conflict in Ukraine is shining a light on Gazprom and the company’s outsize influence on European soccer. In addition to controlling Russia’s top club, F.C. Zenit, Gazprom members sit on the boards of influential sports groups including the European Club Association, which represents top clubs across the continent. Since 2007, Gazprom has been a major sponsor of Schalke, one of Germany’s biggest clubs. But on Thursday, Schalke said it would be removing the Gazprom logo from its club shirts in protest over the military invasion. On Friday, English team Manchester United announced they have cancelled their £40 million ($53 million) sponsorship deal with the Russian airline Aeroflot.
“In light of events in Ukraine, we have withdrawn Aeroflot’s sponsorship rights,” a United spokesperson said.
UEFA is reportedly in discussions with its lawyers over ending its onw longstanding sponsorship deal with Gazprom. The governing body said it would relocate any games in tournaments it controls that were to be involved in Russia or Ukraine, whether involving clubs or national teams, “until further notice.”
On Thursday, the soccer federations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic wrote to FIFA, the world soccer governing body, calling for Russia to be banned from hosting playoff games for the 2022 World Cup that are scheduled for next month. Poland is set to play Russia in Moscow on March 24.
“The military escalations that we are observing entails serious consequences and considerably lower safety for our national football teams and official delegations,” the federations wrote in a joint statement.
The Russian soccer federation, R.F.U., on Friday called UEFA’s decision to move the Champions League final one “dictated by political reasons.” The federation’s president Alexander Dyukov, who is also chief executive of Gazprom and president of Gazprom-owned Russian team Zenit-St. Petersburg, said the R.F.U. “has always adhered to the principle that ‘sport is out of politics,’ and thus cannnot support this decision.”
There is also growing speculation that calls for sanctions against prominent Russian businesses and oligarchs in response to the Ukraine invasion could target Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who owns Chelsea football club, last year’s Champions League winners. When the British government this week announced a list of Russian billionaires who will be subject to new sanctions, Abramovich’s name was not on the list. Nor was Alisher Usmanov’s, a Russian oligarch who holds a stake in English Premier League team Everton through a holding company, USM. But many, including members of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, have called for both men to be added to the sanctions list.