MARTIN SAMUEL: Russia are at it. We caught them at it. Yet still sports appeases them… 

Appeasement. It is a word that has been heard a lot this week. Politicians have appeased Vladimir Putin, nations have appeased Vladimir Putin, sport has appeased Vladimir Putin. Most of all, football.

We can all join the dots. Chelsea are owned by Roman Abramovich, Alisher Usmanov has an interest in Everton. UEFA are in hock to Gazprom, Manchester United to Aeroflot and the Champions League final was heading to St Petersburg.

Liz Truss, who is Foreign Secretary and has the furry hat to prove it, said if the match were not moved any English club involved should announce a boycott.

Vladmir Putin declared war on Ukraine as Russia invaded the country on Thursday morning

The attack has come to Ukraine on all fronts, with bombs and missiles striking targets across the country

The attack has come to Ukraine on all fronts, with bombs and missiles striking targets across the country

She didn’t explain what they should do when sued by UEFA, their sponsors and broadcast partners, for what could be hundreds of millions in broken contracts, and whether a club with that degree of liability would still be expected to prop up the finances of Accrington Stanley or Sunderland when the Government regulator for football arrives, but it’s easy to let the details slip when your thought process runs no deeper than the next populist soundbite. Plus, it must get hot inside that hat.

The funny thing is, she didn’t mention Adam Peaty and the Great Britain swimming team, or the World University Games, or ice hockey, or volleyball, or even Formula One, all of which have huge events scheduled for Russia in the coming months and years.

Appeasement didn’t begin in Sochi, or at the 2018 World Cup, or when Gazprom became a Champions League sponsor. Facilitating Russian soft power through sport has been going on throughout Putin’s time as leader. We notice football because it has the highest profile and generates the most money, but there is barely a world championship in any discipline that has not embraced Russia during Putin’s reign. And the more he likes a sport, the more eager it is to please.

Vlad enjoys taking his shirt off and riding horses, so Russia hosted the world championships in modern pentathlon in 2004, 2011 and 2016. Putin has shown interest in fencing. The sport took its major tournament there in 2007, 2014 and 2015. And these are just the big events, the global gatherings. Every sport also has junior championships, sometimes separate women’s championships, maybe a solely European competition.

Facilitating Russian soft power through sport has been going on throughout Putin’s reign

Facilitating Russian soft power through sport has been going on throughout Putin’s reign

So while Russia has never hosted handball’s world championship, it has hosted the Intercontinental Handball Cup, the women’s, men’s youth and women’s junior world championships; and the men’s and women’s Beach Handball World Championship in the last 20 years. In 2026 it has already been decided that Moscow and St Petersburg will host the women’s European Championship. And that’s just one sport.

Across nine years between 2003 and 2011, the same venue in western Siberia held four World Championships for biathlon. Wrestling’s world championship has been to Russia twice in Putin’s reign, and is due back there again in 2023. UEFA will meet on Friday morning to try to disentangle European football from Russia, but it is a far from easy process. There are World Cup qualifiers, participation in competitions such as the women’s European Championship to consider, plus hosting.

Not just this year’s Champions League final, but next year’s Super Cup which is in Kazan, despite the fact no club further east than Munich has contested it since 2009. Kazan is a difficult to get to from the west, with no direct flights from England, Germany, Spain, Italy or Portugal, the countries that have provided the last 24 Super Cup finalists. So why is it even there? Guess.

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And each time a sport bows before a regime that we know corrupted just about every event it touched with its state-sponsored doping programme, that is appeasement. They were at it. We caught them at it. We know they are at it. They are still at it. And yet we appease them.

St Petersburg is set to be stripped of this season's Champions League final as early as Friday

St Petersburg is set to be stripped of this season’s Champions League final as early as Friday

Volleyball, a sport that has more member nations than FIFA and therefore cannot be short of hosting options, is spreading its World Cup across 10 Russian cities this year between August 26 and September 11. And yet, last year, one of Russia’s gold medallist volleyball players from the 2012 London Olympics accepted a doping ban, for a positive test that was covered up eight years ago.

The sporting authorities see this subversion of fairness, and still offer Russia their implied endorsement. Still, they appease.

Of course, it goes without saying that what is unfolding in Ukraine is of far greater significance than volleyball. Yet do not think these strands are unrelated. Sport is one of the ways Russia utilises propaganda — Russia cheats because success in the arena matters; just as it mattered to Putin that his football hooligans were seen as the toughest at Euro 2016. It is part of his hybrid war on the West.

In this country, we condemn hooliganism, yet when Putin spoke in the aftermath of the violence in Marseille, his words were more ambiguous. ‘The fighting between Russian fans and English, that is a disgrace,’ he began, ‘but I don’t understand how 200 of our fans could beat up several thousand English.’

The world should have watched when Putin made comments about hooliganism in 2016

The world should have watched when Putin made comments about hooliganism in 2016

The audience loudly applauded. It wasn’t just the implication of Western conspiracy they enjoyed; there was also swagger. The Russian hooligans were the tough guys. Come and have a go, if you think you’re hard enough.

Putin didn’t invade Ukraine while the Olympics were on, either. He didn’t embarrass his toadying chum, IOC president Thomas Bach, by making him answer for Russian foreign policy.

Bach has been ruinously lenient on Russian cheating to the utter detriment of the Olympic movement — NBC’s viewing figures for the Beijing Games were 42 per cent down on Pyeongchang in 2018 — and it would have been a great humiliation to have Russian tanks moving across the border while Bach trotted out his trite closing ceremony sermon. ‘Give peace a chance,’ Bach simpered, while his pal massed armies on Ukraine’s perimeter. It’s a pity John Lennon didn’t believe in the afterlife. He should come back and haunt him.

We focus on the football because we think the rest does not matter. Who cares about rowing, apart from once every four years? Russia does. It cares enough to have embarked on a doping programme that, at one time, saw 22 of 28 rowers banned by World Rowing.

Putin is a big advocate of sport and has been seen riding horses with his shirt off down the years

Putin is a big advocate of sport and has been seen riding horses with his shirt off down the years

If Putin wanted to conquer the world through football he would have steered Abramovich towards CSKA Moscow, not Chelsea, and put the weight of Russian laboratories behind that instead. Such a plan would carry scant guarantee of success, however.

The best players would still gravitate towards Europe’s biggest leagues and the wealth of the Western elite clubs makes it very hard for any competitor from the East to break in.

Only two Russian clubs have ever won existing European titles: CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg in the UEFA Cup in 2004-05 and 2007-08. Dinamo Tbilisi won the defunct Cup Winners’ Cup as part of the Soviet Union in 1980-81, but are now Georgian. For how much longer, who knows? Dynamo Kyiv won the same competition in 1974-75 and 1985-86. Things change.

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Yet go to Russia’s Soviet-era stadiums and it is not football that is celebrated. In the national arena in Minsk, now capital of Russian ally Belarus, a grandly solemn wall carries the names of all the Olympic athletes from the local Dinamo sports club who have won gold medals, including the gymnast Olga Korbut. It takes in all sports, from winter endurance to athletics. This is Russia exercising its soft power, too. And every visit to the country by a sport — shooting will have its world championships there next year, having last held them in Moscow as recently as 2017 — is another sliver of appeasement.

Putin's allies, none more so than Roman Abramovich, have placed themselves in elite sport

Putin’s allies, none more so than Roman Abramovich, have placed themselves in elite sport

Now we see Russia as the pariah state. Bombs fall on Kharkiv, tanks rolls in from Belarus, and we foolishly imagine Manchester United’s flights with Aeroflot are a serious, effective, target.

Yet the process of appeasement is too embedded. Not just in sport; in business, in politics, in diplomacy. For too long, we have cared only for the money, and here, in part, is the result.

Just two days ago, Sport Accord — described as the United Nations of sport, bringing together 1,500 delegates from associations and organisations across the world — were still insistent their 2022 conference would go ahead: in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

Among the keynote speakers is Matthieu Reeb, secretary-general of the Court of Arbitration for Sport and one of the individuals who helped keep Kamila Valieva at the Olympic Games, despite a positive drugs test. Appeasement continues, because people in big hats lack the brains to fill them.


One of the saddest sights this week was Oakland Hills clubhouse in flames.

A gorgeous, white-painted beauty, the country club in Michigan was where Europe won the 2004 Ryder Cup. Media can’t get near a venue’s inner sanctum these days, but back then a press pass did the trick. Some of us even made friends with an Oakland Hills member, which meant we could get a drink at the bar.

One of the saddest sights this week was Oakland Hills clubhouse in flames in Michigan

One of the saddest sights this week was Oakland Hills clubhouse in flames in Michigan

Searching for a bit of local colour, I watched much of the singles there on the Sunday. The TV coverage made the tournament look like a putting competition between Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Davis Love III. And they’re all very good putters. 

So lots of whooping and ‘USA, USA’ and nobody seemed to notice the Europeans were racking up the points off-camera. Then, late afternoon, the scoreboard appeared as an ocean of blue. A collective groan and everybody went home. By the end, I pretty much had the place to myself.


Fulham manager Marco Silva claims referees do not give decisions to his striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. There’s a reason for this. Last February, when Fulham played West Ham, Mitrovic was marking, and holding, Tomas Soucek, who shrugged his arm to get free. As he did so, an elbow brushed Mitrovic’s face, and he fell as if struck and injured. Soucek was sent off, a decision later rescinded.

Previously, Mitrovic had pulled a similar stunt against Rajiv van La Parra of Huddersfield, clutching his face and rolling around when replays showed he wasn’t touched.

So referees gave decisions to Mitrovic and he made them look stupid. Now they don’t. That’s not injustice. It’s karma.

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In the aftermath of a largely underwhelming Winter Games for Great Britain — the curlers aside — there has been much discussion about funding. Who gets cut, who gets encouraged? Why not start with the ringers?

Long track speed skating, apparently, may benefit because Cornelius Kersten came within three tenths of a second of the podium. Leaving aside that in speed skating terms that’s ninth — meaning five other people were also within three tenths of a second of the podium but still faster than Kersten — this does not mean Britain has speed skating potential. Kersten is Dutch, came through the Dutch system, lives and trains in Holland and only competes for Great Britain because he cannot make Holland’s team. So why invest in a sport that is alien to British people?

Gus Kersten is Dutch, came through the Dutch system, trains in Holland but is Team GB

Gus Kersten is Dutch, came through the Dutch system, trains in Holland but is Team GB

The skiing team is stuffed with Americans but at least there is potential for producing homegrown athletes like Kirsty Muir, from Aberdeen. We have facilities for figure skating, even ice hockey. Yet the more funding relies on artificial ninth-placed finishes, the more our money is used only to realise the dreams of athletes who pick up the Union Flag when it suits and discard it when done. 

Gus Kenworthy wore a shirt with ‘Openly British’ on its front. No, he’s not. He competed for America, then couldn’t get in their team. If he was still performing at the level that won him Olympic silver in 2014, he would be about as British as Hank Williams. 

A cynic might even argue that doing a stint for Britain increases his chances of landing acting gigs and reality TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic now. Expect him on Strictly soon. Curling should be the blueprint. 

British athletes, able to use British facilities, coming through a British system. Not because we want to remain a small, insular island but because international sport is supposed to be the best of yours against the best of theirs, not the best of yours and whoever else you can rope in to falsely boost the funding. That’s just a polite form of cheating.


Sometimes you join a tennis match and a player is leading the set 4-1. You think it’s over. It isn’t. Depending on the order of service games, 4-1 can amount to just one break. Hold serve 4-2. Break serve 4-3. Hold serve 4-4. That’s pretty much what happened in the title race.

On January 15, Manchester City were 14 points clear of Liverpool in third place. It looked done. Yet Liverpool had two games in hand. So make that eight points. And the teams had to play each other, potentially five. This meant there only had to be one weekend when City lost and Liverpool won for there to be, possibly, as little as two points in it. 

On the weekend of January 22-23, Manchester City dropped two points at Southampton and Liverpool won at Crystal Palace. 

Last weekend, City lost to Tottenham, Liverpool beat Norwich. So now, while City remain favourites, we have a title race again. Actually, we always did. Sometimes numbers deceive.

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