|They, ah, invade others' territory quite well|
While watching Bayern Munich host Arsenal at the Allianz Arena yesterday evening, the scrolling Gazprom banners did not escape my attention. A few days ago, I included a picture of Schalke 04 star Julian Draxler while discussing the EU's reluctance to punch Russia in the nose over its shenanigans in the Crimean peninsula. Actually, the story is bigger than that. Much bigger. Reaching the Champions League is no mean feat, and one of the largest bankrollers of Schalke 04 in recent years has been no less than its chairman's buddy--a certain chap who enjoys circulating shirtless photos of himself riding horseback:
[Schalke 04] is also a club whose chairman, Clemens Tönnies, has a close relationship with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. A club which receives 16 million Euros a year from Gazprom, the energy company owned by the Russian state. It was a relationship which most had seen fit not to make too much of a fuss about. They were happy to "separate sport and politics". As events develop in the Crimea, one wonders for how much longer such an attitude can endure.OK, so it's not quite yet on par with being an Englishman chummy with Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1914, but a lot will depend on what Putin does from here on in. The Schalke 04 boys visiting Putin would be up there with Rodman and his troupe of former NBA starts going to North Korea. In this case, though, they know who their paymaster is:
Some Schalke fans have acted in recent days. The fan publication "Schalke Unser" sent a letter to the board this week urging them to distance themselves from Putin. "FC Schalke 04 is a club with democratic foundations, that holds freedom of opinion in high esteem," wrote Roman Kolbe, "We should not serve an autocrat".
The letter was a response to reports that Putin had invited the Schalke team to meet him, in a further victory for the separation of sport and politics. Shortly after the invitation was sent, he ordered soldiers to march into the Crimea.
That invitation still stands, even with Putin's hands tied up in the various machinations of the Crimea, the Ukraine and, dare we say it, Estonia. Schalke's general manager Horst Heldt explained at a press conference yesterday, however, that "we haven't yet made any travel plans".If worse comes to worse, will Schalke 04 be forced to purge itself of Gazprom money? Methinks matters will not go much further than the EU canceling talks over visa-free Russian visits and stronger trade ties. After all, those agitating the most (hello US and UK) do not really have that much skin in this game.
Many Schalke supporters must be relieved. It would be humiliating indeed to see the likes of Julian Draxler, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and the increasingly politically impressive Kevin-Prince Boateng smirking at Putin's biceps, while Tönnies scurried around looking for feet to kiss. But even without an official visit, Schalke's relationship to Putin, and the various pies in which he has fingers, remains strong.
Besides, why doesn't anyone complain about equally repressive GCC states bankrolling European football teams--especially in the UK?