Football may soon provide a gauge of the extent by which reason governs political decision-making in Russia.
Anatoly Vorobiev, the general-secretary of the Russian Football Union, recently floated an idea in which Russia’s national football squad would play as a team in the Russian Premier League during the 2017-18 season.
One of Ukraine’s most storied football clubs has become a casualty of the country’s separatist tumult. Six foreign-born players have abandoned Shakhtar Donetsk, leaving the defending Ukrainian Premier League champion short-handed on the eve of the start of the 2014-15 season.
It’s not unusual for American soccer players to go abroad to chase dreams of playing professionally. But you might say Nicholas Pugliese, a 24-year-old from Rochester, New York, took things to an extreme by signing with Ferozi FC, a team based in Kabul, Afghanistan.
It appears Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions aren’t limited to economics and politics. The master of the Kremlin also wants to advance his agenda via sports, namely with the creation of a new football super league comprising leading teams from Russia and other formerly Soviet republics.
Twenty years after the signing of a Nagorno-Karabakh ceasefire agreement, Agdam remains a ghost town, its battle-scarred buildings steadily crumbling, its streets being relentlessly reclaimed by nature. But in an athletic quirk, a football club representing the town has been crowned the champion of Azerbaijan’s Premier League.
When the 2013-14 season concluded in mid-May, FC Karabakh Agdam stood atop the 10-team standings, five points ahead of the second-place finisher Inter Baku. It marked the second regular season championship for Agdam, the first since 1993, the year the town was overrun by Armenian forces during the hottest phase of the Karabakh war.
Agdam is still unable to play home games in its hometown; the area remains under the control of Armenian forces and is used as a buffer zone. Only a few hundred farmers inhabit the surrounding area. Peace talks that could potentially pave the way for the resettlement of Agdam remain stalemated, with no visible chance of a breakthrough in the foreseeable future.
As a team in exile, Agdam to a great extent has been embraced by the Azeri nation, and it now has a nationwide fan base. Currently, it plays most of its home games in the capital Baku at Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, the largest football venue in the country with a 31,000 capacity. The stadium hosts all international football matches, including World Cup qualifiers. On occasion, the club plays a home game at a 2,000-seat facility in Guzanli, a village situated not far from the town of Agdam.
That Agdam’s home field is in Baku makes a political point in Azerbaijan, underscoring the fact that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration has made the recovery of Karabakh, as well as the occupied Azeri lands surrounding the disputed territory, a top priority.
Professional athletes try to stay away from politics as a general rule. But in Ukraine these days, it’s increasingly difficult to do so. Players in Ukraine’s Premier League, the country’s top football division, say they are having a tough time concentrating on the game.
Helping to sow confusing in the Premier League is the fact that a couple of top teams, including front-runner Shakhtar Donetsk, are based in eastern Ukraine, currently the epicenter of disturbances kicked up by pro-Russian agitators. In addition, two of the 15 teams now competing in the top division play their home games in Crimea, a peninsula that Russia recently claimed as its own.
Conditions are especially bewildering for foreign players, such as Miguel Veloso, a 27-year-old midfielder who plays for Ukraine’s most storied football team, FC Dynamo Kyiv. Veloso is also expected to be a major contributor on Portugal’s national team in the upcoming World Cup tournament, to be held this summer in Brazil.
“We are living amid a time of war and it’s not easy,” Veloso recently told EurasiaNet.org. “These aren’t the proper conditions to play football in now. It’s very hard when you see people in a war-like situation and you have to go out on the field for a match.”
There are no Russian citizens on Dynamo Kyiv’s roster, a factor that no doubt keeps the tension level in the clubhouse in check. Still the players must contend with major distractions; several have friends and family members living in areas directly affected by the Ukrainian-Russian crisis. “Some of my teammates are more involved in the situation,” said Veloso, who previously played for Genoa in Italy’s Serie A league. “Even those who are not directly involved, they still suffer a lot because they are Ukrainian and they can’t accept what’s happening to their country.”
The French writer and philosopher Albert Camus reportedly once said, “Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.” Camus obviously never saw how the Beautiful Game is played in Tajikistan.