UEFA plans to move final out of Russia

The British government has launched calls for the Champions League final to be withdrawn from Russia on Tuesday to punish its deepening interference in Ukraine, prompting UEFA to say it will reconsider hosting rights.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised concerns over the showpiece men’s match played in St Petersburg on May 28 as he urged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to lead a full invasion of Ukraine.

Russia sparked an outcry when it announced on Monday that its recognition of the independence of areas in eastern Ukraine extended to territory currently held by Ukrainian forces.

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“It is absolutely vital at this critical time that President Putin understands that what he is doing is going to be a disaster for Russia,” Johnson told the House of Commons.

“He’s going to end up with…a more isolated Russia, a Russia that has pariah status, no chance of having football tournaments in a Russia that invades sovereign countries.”

In response, European football’s governing body for the first time acknowledged a risk to Russia hosting the event.

“UEFA is constantly and closely monitoring the situation,” the Champions League hosts said in a statement, “and any decision would be taken in due course if necessary.”

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A person familiar with the situation said the Ukraine crisis was discussed by senior UEFA officials on Tuesday, including its president, Aleksander Ceferin. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks assessing the geopolitical situation.

With four representatives in the Champions League Round of 16, England have the most teams remaining in the competition. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who holds the sports file in Johnson’s cabinet, said she would discuss “serious concerns” about Russia’s hosting of the final with UEFA.

“We will not allow President Putin to exploit events on the world stage to legitimize his illegal invasion of Ukraine,” Dorries said.

UEFA have had to move the Champions League final for the past two seasons, both times from Turkey to Portugal due to the pandemic. A full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would significantly change UEFA’s belief that the final could still be played in Saint Petersburg.

Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta lifts the Champions League trophy after winning the final against Manchester City. (UEFA via Getty Images)

FIFA council member Alexey Sorokin, who also heads the final’s organizing committee, said no talks had taken place with UEFA over St Petersburg’s loss of hosting rights .

“We are preparing for the final as planned,” Sorokin told TASS news agency. “We expect over 50,000 overseas fans to arrive.”

Russian officials have yet to acknowledge the deployment of troops in the rebels’ east, but Vladislav Brig, a member of the separatist Donetsk local council, told reporters that Russian troops had already moved in, taking positions in the north and the west of the region.

UEFA has separated Ukrainian and Russian teams in draws to prevent them from playing each other since Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and backed separatist insurgents in eastern Ukraine.

The Russian gas company, Gazprom, has been a sponsor of the Champions League since 2012 – the same year Ukraine co-hosted the European Championship with Poland. But the company’s logos were removed from a UEFA-branded ‘Festival of Champions’ on Kyiv’s main street when the Ukrainian capital staged the 2018 Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool.

A general view inside the stadium as large replica Sweden and Poland shirts are displayed on the pitch ahead of the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group E match between Sweden and Poland at the stadium of St. Petersburg on June 23, 2021 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Getty)

Russia is already serving a sanction from the World Anti-Doping Agency for state-sponsored cheating that bars it from hosting international sporting events until December. But UEFA was not bound by the decision as Europe’s governing body, meaning Saint Petersburg already hosted four European Championship games last year.

Separately on Tuesday, the Polish football federation asked FIFA to urgently clarify whether their World Cup qualifier against Russia on March 24 will be played in Moscow as planned. The winner of this match will face Sweden or the Czech Republic for a place at the World Cup in Qatar.

If Russia qualify for the World Cup in Qatar in November, the team’s name should be changed to something neutral that probably wouldn’t include the word “Russia”. The Russian team of the last two Olympics was called ROC – Russian Olympic Committee.

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