Beneath the winter sun in the grounds of the five-star Sueno Hotel in Antalya on Turkey’s southern coast, where golf buggies help guests navigate the lengthy distances from their hotel rooms to plush facilities, a modest crowd is gathered between two football pitches.
Austria Vienna are taking on Partizan Belgrade of Serbia on one pitch. Both clubs are big hitters in the top flights of their respective countries, and both are members of UEFA, European football’s organising body. Two teams that are trying to keep fit and focused as their leagues take a winter break.
But the match on the other pitch is far more intriguing.
It involves FK Vojvodina of Serbia and Akhmat Grozny — who play in the Russian Premier League.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the country has been banned from UEFA and FIFA competitive matches at club and international level.
Poland refused to play Russia in a 2022 World Cup qualifier last year, with a letter to world governing body FIFA backed by Sweden and Czech Republic, who could also have met Russia in qualifying matches.
Then Russia arranged a friendly against Bosnia ahead of the Qatar tournament but their opponents pulled out after widespread criticism.
This week, The Athletic reported Russia’s UEFA ban will continue, despite the nation lobbying for it to be lifted at a recent meeting with UEFA executives in Switzerland.
But the ban does not specifically apply to friendlies, so clubs from UEFA countries are still playing friendlies against Russian clubs in Turkey, which is itself a UEFA member. European clubs can play friendlies without UEFA’s permission and national team friendlies fall under FIFA’s jurisdiction.
“Although the games in Turkey have an unofficial status, we consider this a violation of the isolation of Russian sports,” says Oleksandr Glyvynskyi, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Football Association. “Any representatives of the country have no right to participate in international activities, including sports. Russia and its companion Belarus should be isolated completely.”
The Ukrainian FA has “demanded” FIFA and UEFA stop these matches, and Glyvynskyi added that Ukrainian clubs have decided they will not hold matches with clubs that have played friendlies against Russian clubs over the winter break, citing Partizan Belgrade, another Serbian club, as a side that has recently played a friendly against Akhmat Grozny.
There is quite a presence at the simultaneous games at the Sueno Hotel, with a broadcast truck and several cameras helping to stream the games online. There is a full slate of match officials wearing yellow, and a couple of hundred people — most seemingly staff or employees of the four clubs — are watching the matches in the early evening gloom.
So-called “warm weather training camps” are popular with teams across Europe, particularly from the east and north of the continent where winters are harsh and leagues have an extended winter break in January. These camps usually include friendly matches against other teams who happen to be in the same place at the time.
As well as FK Vojvodina vs AK Grozny in the grounds of the Sueno Hotel, there were other games taking place between Russian clubs and sides from UEFA member states, including Serbia and North Macedonia.
— FK Vojvodina (@FKVojvodina1914) January 27, 2023
“Outside of games played by big transnational clubs, there is very little oversight of friendlies at all,” says Steve Menary, author of A Friendly Business. “A vast amount are played in Turkey at this time of the year, but how opponents are found seems to be random and at the whims of largely unsupervised match agents.”
These matches are not breaking any laws or UEFA rules but the practice of continuing to hold friendlies against Russian clubs has caused controversy around Europe as Vladimir Putin’s army continues its war of aggression.
The European Union has 27 member states but UEFA has 55. It now includes all the Balkan states as well as several countries which were once members of the Soviet Union including Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia and Belarus. Despite Belarus being Putin’s close ally in the war with Ukraine, the country does not face similar UEFA restrictions and will participate in the qualifiers for Euro 2024.
While many UEFA member countries are more or less united in vehemently opposing the Russian invasion and supporting the Ukrainian side in the war, the situation gets more complex in Eastern Europe, where countries do not just have cultural and historic links to Russia but also economic ones.
Serbia has long been a close ally of Russia, with deep historic and cultural ties, and has supported Putin’s government on many issues. However, the country is also pursuing EU membership.
Turkey also has military and economic connections with Russia despite being a firm member of NATO, the US-led military alliance.
When it comes to football, an interesting case study is Bulgaria.
Many Bulgarian football clubs have travelled to Turkey as the domestic top flight takes a pause during the country’s ferocious winters, including playing friendly matches against teams from elsewhere. A smattering of CSKA Sofia fans were virtually the only supporters The Athletic came across in southern Turkey.
Levski Sofia, another club based in the Bulgarian capital, recently organised friendlies against Russian clubs in Antalya but cancelled them in the face of fan protests.
“Many fans of Levski feel it’s just not right to play Russian teams,” says Bulgarian football journalist Metodi Shumanov. “While elements of Bulgarian society are sympathetic to Russia given the historic ties between the two countries, football fans tend to be more pro-Ukrainian.”
Late last year, the Russian Football Union (RFU) held a meeting to discuss resigning from UEFA in order to try and join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
But the idea met with resistance in some quarters. The RFU then invited UEFA to create a working group along with delegates from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee as it stepped up its attempts to return its clubs and international teams to European competition.
Russian tennis players were banned from competing at Wimbledon last year but have been permitted to compete at this month’s Australian Open as individual athletes without national affiliation.
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