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Russians pay no heed to rules

FIFA's credibility and authority take yet another blow

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Earlier this month, a football team from the Crimean coastal city of Sevastopol took the short, 84-kilometre drive northeast to Simferopol.

On the face of it, there was nothing unusual about the match that was to take place at the Lokomotiv Republican Sports Complex. It might have been any other peninsular derby -- a showdown between the ninth-place finishers from last season's Ukrainian Premier League and the division's first-ever champions.

But this particular contest, as UEFA ruled on Friday, was an illegal one, meaning Sevastopol's 2-0 victory in front of 1,600 people was rendered null and void.

At least, that's how European football's governing body saw it. And no doubt they'll be hearing from the Russian Football Union in the coming days -- that is, if the Russians even take the ruling seriously.

The match, it just so happens, was part of the first round of the 2014-15 Russian Cup, and another Crimean club based in Yalta also participated in the competition on Aug. 1. They lost 2-0 at home to FC Sochi.

Predictably, the Ukrainian Football Federation (FFU) was furious.

"We have witnessed the executive committee of the Russian Football Union illegally and arbitrarily embracing the Ukrainian clubs from the Crimean peninsula," FFU president Anatoly Konkov fumed in a statement.

"We understand this activity is in conflict with the regulations of FIFA, UEFA, the FFU and RFU (Russian Football Union)."

He's right.

According to FIFA regulations, football clubs can only move from one national association to another following the consent of both -- and ultimately of FIFA, itself. That didn't happen, and as it turns out the RFU was taking orders directly from the Russian ministry of sport.

"The RFU is one of Russia's sports federations," Nikolai Tolstykh, the organization's president, told the BBC last week, "And in accordance with Russian legislation, Crimean sports clubs and organizations have equal rights, along with other regions, to membership in all federations."

Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko simply labelled the matter an "internal affair."

Mutko, however, is not only a politician in president Vladimir Putin's government but also a member of FIFA's executive committee and the chairman of his country's successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

(Incidentally, he also spent $4,500 on breakfasts during a three-week stay in Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics and was later audited by the Russian parliament.)

In other words, he has positioned himself in a conflict of interest while breaking the rules of both the RFU and FIFA--an eventuality that might have been foreseen when Russia sanctioned Crimea's March 16 referendum and swallowed the region into its borders.

For what it's worth, neither the United Nations nor international community generally (with a scattering of exceptions including Syria, Venezuela Nicaragua and Cuba) has recognized Crimea to be part of Russia in the five months since, although the annexation has been popularly cast as a trade-off in return for Russian concessions in other parts of Ukraine that have yet to transpire.

Incredibly, FIFA could well become the first major international body to recognize the Crimean Federal District, and by their silence on the matter of the Sevastopol, Simferopol and Yalta clubs it could be argued that they've already aligned themselves with the Russian position by default.

No doubt they'd rather not be in this position, for as president Sepp Blatter has stated repeatedly they "have no political ambitions."

But they do have regulations, and by absorbing the Crimean clubs into their jurisdiction the RFU is in direct breach of those.

This weekend Sevastopol, Simferopol and Yalta will begin play in the third tier of Russian football. Last weekend Blatter spoke with Putin in person, although the two did not discuss the situation. They talked about World Cup stadiums.

Typically, political interference in the affairs of national football associations would be met with immediate censure from FIFA. If Russia was any other country, the RFU would have been suspended on Aug. 1.

That didn't happen. It still hasn't. And in letting the Russians run roughshod over rules that everyone else plays by, FIFA's authority and credibility has once again been dealt a serious blow.

Russia, meanwhile, has cowed yet another global institution.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 C6

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