Russia has seamlessly returned to football – and nobody seems overly perturbed
The Azadi Stadium in Tehran can hold up to 78,000 at capacity. As Anton Miranchuk of Lokomotiv Moscow kicked off under a giant portrait of the former supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini on Thursday night, let’s generously say it wasn’t quite full. Still, what crowd there was made a pretty decent noise.
There were even a few hundred travelling fans, who were rewarded when Miranchuk scored for Russia from the penalty spot. Early in the second half the Porto striker Mehdi Taremi equalised for Iran, and although the later stages disintegrated into a procession of substitutions, the visitors were ultimately a little fortunate to escape with a 1-1 draw.
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Honours even on the pitch, then, which felt like a diplomatically fitting result. Over the past year, as the west has begun to close ranks, these two pariah states have found themselves locked in a pragmatic but increasingly enthusiastic embrace.
Russian money has been pouring into Iranian mining and infrastructure projects, to the point where it is now Iran’s largest source of foreign investment. Iran has invited Russian businesspeople to Tehran to share advice on circumventing western sanctions. The two countries have linked their banking systems and embarked on joint naval drills. And last month the Russian and Iranian sports ministers signed a “memorandum of mutual understanding”, vowing to strengthen their sporting ties.
On Sunday evening, Ukraine’s footballers will step out at Wembley Stadium to a vivid fanfare: a sea of flags and bold gestures, an outpouring of affection and solidarity that has greeted them pretty much everywhere they have travelled in the last year. At exactly the same time, in St Petersburg’s Krestovsky Stadium, Russia will play Iraq in their first national team game on home soil since the start of last year’s war.
Good luck finding the game on television or tracking down a match report on the Fifa website. But seamlessly, almost imperceptibly, Russia has returned to the international football treadmill, and nobody seems overly perturbed by it.
Even Ukraine, who called for Iran to be thrown out of last year’s World Cup for its role in supplying drones to the Russian war effort, has in this instance opted for apathy over outrage. “Those countries who play Russia, an aggressor, support Russian aggression and what Russia is doing to Ukraine,” said Ukraine’s caretaker manager, Ruslan Rotan, last week. “We don’t have to think about those countries, we don’t have to pay attention to them. They are not worthy. The bottom line is, forget Russia.”
With Russia and its clubs still frozen out of Uefa, and no realistic prospect of a rapprochement as long as the war continues, this may well end up becoming the default stance across much of the continent. In the meantime, Russia has been on manoeuvres.
Along with the friendlies against Iran and Iraq, it has signed up to play in the inaugural Central Asian Championship in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan this summer. And so while Ukraine spins ever more rapidly into Europe’s orbit, Russia’s centre of gravity has travelled eastwards towards Asia, an arrangement that may even end up becoming formal.
In recent weeks Russia has increasingly been making overtures to the Asian Football Confederation, inciting rumours that it may ultimately turn its back on Uefa entirely and throw its lot in with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Guam and Australia.
Officially speaking, securing re- entry to European football remains the priority, and among Russia’s biggest clubs there is certainly little appetite for spurning the riches of Uefa’s Champions League for its far less prestigious AFC equivalent. But as Denis Rogachev, the deputy secretary general of the Russian FA, recently put it, “all scenarios are being considered”. After all, he said: “We do not experience a flow of people who want to play us.”
Naturally there is an element of realpolitik here: the longer Russia’s international isolation continues the greater the risk of national team atrophy, perhaps even mass exodus. Membership of the Asian confederation would give Russia a steady supply of games, as well as a far easier route to World Cup qualification, with up to nine Asian teams in the 2026 tournament. For the AFC, Russia’s admission would immediately offer increased clout and prestige on the world stage, even if the route to full membership remains bureaucratically complex.
But of course Russia’s Asian realignment has a more symbolic dimension too: part of a wider geopolitical pivot that the war in Ukraine may not have begun but has certainly accelerated. In a way, the interplay between Russia’s European and Asian identities is one that has been defining the country’s politics since the time of Peter the Great.
With Vladimir Putin turning his back on Europe and seeking to increase energy and security cooperation with China and India and the autocracies of the Arab world, maybe closer sporting cooperation is the natural next step.
Perhaps, on a footballing level, Europe really is prepared to “forget Russia”. But as the boycotts and bans begin to loosen, as other sports prepare to readmit Russia to the fold, it is a reminder of the fragility of solidarity in a deeply complex world.
The International Olympic Committee has decided to allow Russian athletes for next year’s Paris Games. Wimbledon is set to lift its ban on Russian players next month. Meanwhile, Russia’s footballers are discovering that the beauty of football is also its scourge. There is always – always – somebody else to play.