As UEFA climb higher into the corporate clouds the detail on the ground is becoming difficult to make out
Gazprom and the Champions League are an obvious partnership in the thickening mesh that binds football to the world it inhabits. Both have a reach in their respective field that spans continent wide, defining and re-defining the possible limits of the industry and marking the standards against which their competitors stand and fall. Both players, in the moments where they ruthlessly dominate the competition or boldly lead it by example, underscore their specialties with the same brute certainty that ties the consumption of football and energy to the everydayness of the twenty-first century.
The Russian energy giant boasts resources in reserve that dwarf those of North Sea Gas by more than fifty-fold whilst Europe’s premier football competition bears irresistible pressure upon its modest domestic rivals in sponsorship and broadcast pools. No single group can claim such hegemony over so many. But success comes at a price and few have felt such frequent lashings of the critics’ tongue as collateral damage piles up in the name of growth. At FC Basle’s Champions League match against Gazprom-backed Schalke last week we saw the first signs of an active revolt that used the public nature of the partnership against the alliance and questions will now be asked about how much of another organisation’s baggage UEFA can responsibly aim to bear.
Typically the higher the stakes the more fiddly becomes the process of acting in the interests of all. Corporate football, sullied as its reputation has become in the fallout from the Brazilian Spring and the Qatari migrant workers bombshell, has drawn relief lately from the debt-busting legislation that UEFA president Michel Platini has shoe-horned into place to keep Europe from collapsing under its own weight, but the living innards of elite football on the continent are such as to resist any bid for working austerity. It’s the nature of the beast that the Champions League will continue to tempt mid-ranking clubs to risk meltdown in order to join the elite (in truth little changes about the make-up of the group stages year on year) and the negligible sums re-invested from the tournament’s coffers lower down the game’s ladder do little to redress a rickety imbalance.
What they won’t tell you in the Gazprom-branded TV ads is that the Champions League is a thorn in the side of clubs beneath the top table who see their leagues and their ambitions distorted by injections of wealth from the continent but recent trends show a wedge driven between the top and bottom ends of the leading domestic leagues and the paying public are becoming acutely conscious. That UEFA should re-enforce their reputation as hegemonic autocrats by teaming up with Europe’s most routinely accused energy provider is a decision that bears probing.
Then comes Gazprom. The demonstration in Basle was a reaction to the detention of the 30 Greenpeace protestors being held by Russian state security in the Arctic city of Murmansk following a botched attempt to scale an off-shore rig owned by the oil giant, but the spirit of the protest was fuelled more generally by Gazprom’s activities in the Arctic Circle. Greenpeace doubt that arctic drilling carries a sustainable risk and Gazprom have been accused from a number of angles of lacking the necessary expertise and experience to tackle this frozen new frontier from an engineering perspective.
There’s also the rotten issue of the company’s shrouded relationship with the Russian state to erode their public image further. Despite being a child of Russia’s post-Soviet redistribution the majority of Gazprom is still under public ownership and a lack of transparency over where benefits are being tapped and who’s tapping them has drawn heavy criticism as the energy supply in the old Communist bloc becomes increasingly monopolised. In 2008 the company briefly closed the main pipeline used to supply gas to the Ukraine – who are in turn a major supplier to the EU – in a dispute over money owed and for a spell Europe saw a glimmer of something potentially devastating from the finger of a semi-democratised, woefully bureaucratic partnership of state and corporate self-interest. The myth of distrust for the oil-producing classes had rarely felt so concrete.
The concern we should all have been feeling as we watched the Greenpeace activists descend eerily from the roof of the St Jakob Park Stadium was that too much of football in the twenty-first century is built on anti-democratic platforms. Mammoth organisations mesh together to dwarf not only the sum of their parts but also the combined efforts of those they exclude. This can mean teams like Liverpool investing fewer resources in a Europa League campaign that is deemed financially and competitively not to pay off or more seriously it can lead to the annihilation of sides like Portsmouth and Leeds United, the combustion of whom would have been inexplicable in a world without the Champions League. Looking out for the little man doesn’t get any easier for the execs at the top table but their mandate demands they provide a continental game with a democratic identity, not a lushly stocked lifeboat that drifts from the pack when the waters get choppy. And Gazprom? If by a man’s company shall he be judged…