European football faces its issue with Gazprom as Russia-Ukraine crisis continues – The Warm-Up
GREAT FRIDAY STORIES
Sport is in politics, and politics is in sport, and each is driven by the other. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes football feel incredibly small and irrelevant, and yet there are football stories embedded in it, created out of it, created by the waves of shock. Most obviously: what is happening to all of football?
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Today, around the time this piece goes up, the UEFA executive committee will be in the midst of an extraordinary general meeting. The decision to move the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg has already been made, according to reports; this meeting aims to formalize this decision and identify the replacement.
You imagine that the word “Gazprom” will also be mentioned, even if Alexander Dyukov, Russian member of UEFA and CEO of Gazprom, finds himself unable to attend the meeting. It was frankly bizarre to watch the Champions League on Tuesday and Wednesday and see the Gazprom commercials going on as usual, lighting up the football, as if the world were doing business as usual. And that was before the invasion started in earnest.
UEFA are therefore moving fast, although it remains to be seen precisely where they end up. FIFA, meanwhile, is monitoring the situation. Russia must face Poland at the end of March in the semi-finals of the Qatar 2022 qualifiers, then in the event of victory, Sweden or the Czech Republic. In theory, both games would take place in Moscow. In practice, the other three teams made it clear that they would not travel to Russia. The Ukrainian FA, meanwhile, have called for Russia’s expulsion from all FIFA and UEFA competitions.
Barcelona is back?
It’s a bit strange to return to real football after this, but nonetheless, some have happened, and we should probably tag that too. In the first leg against Napoli, Barcelona wasted, maybe a bit distracted. But now they seem to have accepted the Europa League.
Worrying for everyone, they even seem to enjoy it. Napoli did what they always do, look like a real football team until something big was required, and Barcelona came in and had a great time. Frenkie de Jong finally looked like the kind of midfield string-puller Barcelona have been looking for since… since… well, ever since the man coaching them now moved to Qatar. And you don’t have to score great goals to be a great player. But it really helps.
The champagne taste theory originated, as far as the Warm-Up can tell, with former Barcelona antagonist Jose Mourinho. This suggests that it is worth winning any competition possible, even one generally considered lesser than the others, because the feeling of winning, the taste of champagne, is something a team will come to crave. This can then be carried over into the appropriate competitions. He was talking about the League Cup, but here Barcelona have the opportunity to try to repeat the trick with the continental equivalent.
Do any of the Barcelona officials want to take part in this competition? No. And we bet Xavi, secretly, wouldn’t mind having free weeks. The gospel of juego de posición is not preached. But they are there and so they go. For one of the first times the Warm-Up can remember this season, Barcelona looked both good and relaxed to be good. It’s not the fastest way out of the Europa League, winning the thing. But it’s the tastiest.
Are Arsenal back?
So let’s move on to the Premier League, where Wolves have achieved something very special. For more than an hour, between leading Wolves and late winners Arsenal, Emirates fans were actually more annoyed with the opposition than their own side. And that takes work.
But to give them their due, wolves were incredibly annoying. We mean that as a compliment. It’s an art to be an irritating football team: it takes wasting time, of course, but it has to be backed up by a proper defensive structure and the ability to keep the ball away from dangerous areas. Arsenal felt that time was wasted on both sides: that they weren’t doing anything useful when they had the ball. Alexander Lacazette slapped his wrist and looked at the referee in the 27th minute. That takes time.
Nevertheless. Nevertheless. Arsenal won. Mikel Arteta told his players at halftime that if they wanted to be a great team, they had to win the game. And they did! Mikel Arteta caused an incredibly expensive disappointment Nicolas Pépé to win the game. And he did! And so, as the players celebrated and the fans in the stadium celebrated and the fans online tweeted “look! look, wolves! we’re celebrating!”, it felt like a momentous occasion. Arsenal had defeated not just Wolves, but a much bigger and more irritating opponent: themselves.
IN OTHER NEWS
We were going to write about Rangers dispatching Borussia Dortmund, but then BT Sport blocked five minutes of Ibrox’s immediate post-match reaction and we realized we couldn’t really compete. So, as they say, scenes.
Say what you like about Gianni Infantino – well, don’t, he probably has some good lawyers – but the man knows how to dodge a question. Here’s Rob Harris asking Infantino about his enthusiastic admiration for Vladimir Putin, about accepting the Order of Friendship, about the 2018 World Cup that will follow the annexation of Crimea, about the use of sport by political figures in search of legitimacy. According to our calculations, it manages to precisely answer none of this.
Football is a path to the world and a guide around it. Before the Warm-Up knew anything about most countries in the world, even really where they were, we knew them as places where football was played: opponents in European competitions, hopefuls tricky in international tournaments, adventures on Championship Manager. Names resonating in the stories of those who watched from before we were born.
This defines everything that follows. He can’t help defining it. Whatever the world is first, it is forever, though adulthood and greater understanding complete this picture. So if a small part of your brain yesterday, trying to keep up with all the news, kept muttering: Dynamo, Shakhtar, Karpaty, Metalist… you weren’t alone in this. What if you spent time on Youtube looking for highlights of this, or that, or the other, just to give yourself a break? You weren’t alone in this either. Here is Dynamo Kyiv beating Barcelona seven times over two legs.
In Serie A, the two Milanese clubs are in action: AC hosts Udinese, then Inter goes to Genoa. In the Premier League, Norwich left for Southampton. And Hoffenheim take on Stuttgart in the Bundesliga.
Tom Adams will be there on Monday with all the news from Gazprom, and there is also a League Cup final.
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