Centre circle

Centre circle

How Russia has devoted its energy to the beautiful game

Political goals for Russia’s gas giant. Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

As the new European football season starts and the tiresome FIFA corruption scandal rumbles on, most of us are inevitably preoccupied either by who will win the coming season’s titles or how the governing body will cope with the pressure. But there is an intriguing, and strengthening, agenda hidden behind both the new season and FIFA’s ongoing travails – global energy supplies.

In their recent book The Ugly Game, Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert discuss what it seems to take for a nation to win the right to host football’s World Cup. Notwithstanding the levels to which all the bidding nations seemingly stooped in the race for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, Blake and Calvert highlight a couple of specific episodes that reveal how deeply embedded football is in global geopolitics and, more specifically, energy supplies.

Deal makers

The first episode describes how, while it was seeking the support of the Thai FIFA Executive Committee, Qatar agreed a 20-year gas deal with the government of Thailand. In 2011, one year after the Middle East nation’s success in its bid to host the 2022 tournament, Qatargas delivered its maiden cargo to Thailand’s first and only Liquified Natural Gas receiving terminal, Map Ta Phut. Since then, Qatargas has supplied Thailand with 27 more cargoes.

In the second episode, Blake and Calvert observe that in the midst of the horse trading for support during FIFA’s problematic 2010 double World Cup vote there emerged an agreement for Qatar and Russia – the world’s two largest natural gas suppliers – to exploit deposits that had been located beneath the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia.

Pressure points. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

There is an argument that such incidents amount to simple coincidence – recent reports in fact indicate that Qatar has decided against taking its involvement in the project any further. However, Blake and Calvert’s observations add further credence to the idea that football is increasingly taking centre-stage in the global geopolitics of international energy supplies. In particular, the authors note that several members of the 2018 Russian bid committee were former employees of Gazprom.

Gas giant

Gazprom is both the world’s largest extractor of natural gas and one of its biggest corporations. Formerly Russian state-owned, Gazprom was created in 1989 and then later partly privatised, although the country’s government retains a majority ownership stake. Despite sanctions against Russia, which have hit Gazprom’s business in recent years, the company still supplies around one-third of the European Union’s gas and actively operates in countries such as Brazil, Germany, Iran and Nigeria.

Gazprom has an impressive array of relationships across football – ranging from deals with FIFA and UEFA, through to ownership of Zenit Saint Petersburg, its reported interest in buying Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade and sponsorship contracts with Schalke of the German Bundesliga and Chelsea of England’s Premier League. This has recently led some commentators to question what Gazprom is seeking to achieve from such deals, especially as the corporation does not sell gas directly to domestic customers.

Schalke stars plug Russian gas in Germany. dsteffek, CC BY

Consider the Schalke deal; the club signed a shirt sponsorship contract with Gazprom in 2007, a move which at the time led German football magazine 11Freunde to claim the club’s move was “like having sex without a condom”. Schalke is based in Gelsenkirchen, northern Germany, which is part of the country’s industrial heartland, the Ruhrgebiet. Many would argue that Schalke is emblematic of German football’s culture and of its industrial roots.

Serbian routes

As one of the biggest consumers of Russian gas, in 2005 the Germans agreed to collaborate with the Russians in building the North Stream gas pipeline. The pipeline, which begins in Russia and terminates in Germany, was inaugurated in 2011. One view is that Gazprom’s deal with Schalke was a means through which to influence German opinion, particularly at governmental levels. As an interesting aside to this, it is worth noting that the North European Gas Pipeline Company (later renamed Nord Stream AG) which owns North Stream is incorporated in Zug, Switzerland – coincidentally the home of FIFA, of which Gazprom is a partner.

Red Star fans light up the stadium. dezindzer, CC BY-SA

History may now be repeating itself, as Gazprom has for some time been flirting heavily with Red Star Belgrade (Serbia’s most famous club) to the extent that the Russian corporation may yet buy the club. This should come as no surprise to anyone as Russia has long been seeking a route for its mooted South Stream gas pipeline, a project of which Gazprom became the 100% owner in late 2014. Serbia was at one time a country through which South Stream could have passed, but it has been struggling to reconcile its aspirations to become a member of the European Union with a desire to remain close to Russia. Alongside that, Gazprom’s attempts to influence Serbia’s position through the purchase of Red Star have remained up in the air.

Life, death and oil

In the meantime, Gazprom has continued its headlong march into football. It’s rotational signage and animated television adverts have become a staple of UEFA Champions League games, while the company’s logo has started to become prominent on FIFA properties as a result of the Russian corporation’s 2013 partnership deal with football’s world governing body. Such deals have taken Gazprom into the boardrooms and corporate hospitality suites of football’s aristocracy, facilitating easy access to the politicians and officials who make the types of energy decisions Gazprom no doubt wants to affect. Football has clearly become a focal point for the fossil fuel diplomacy of countries across the world – Qatar and Russia are not alone in using football for this purpose.

Whatever the outcome of proceedings against FIFA officials, the activities of those such as Gazprom already reveal that those among us who still think that football is all about the game, are guilty of an increasingly naïve assumption. Indeed, one is reminded yet again of former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s words about football being more important than life and death. Seems like he was right after all: in the 21st century it is increasingly about oil and gas, international energy supplies and global geopolitics.