Russian football looks to Asia after Europe ban

MOSCOW, 27 Dec 2022:

UEFA’s suspension of all Russian teams over the country’s invasion of Ukraine has Moscow mulling a bid to join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

“We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, the AFC is open to accepting us into its midst,” Aleksandr Dyukov, the president of the Russian Football Union (RFU), said recently.

The businessman is due to preside over a historic meeting of the RFU’s executive committee today, where officials could decide whether to abandon European football and join the likes of Japan, Syria and Australia in the AFC – in a bid to make the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Such a move would affect Russia’s club powerhouses such as Zenit, Spartak Moscow and CSKA Moscow, who would no longer be able to feature in UEFA competitions like the Champions League.

“No-one has ever left UEFA,” Dyukov acknowledged, adding that there was no set process or jurisprudence for a breakaway.

English clubs were suspended from European football for five years between 1985-90 after the Heysel Stadium disaster, but the national team was permitted to play in the 1986 and 1990 World Cups, as well as the the Euros in 1988.

Israel, an Asian nation by geography, plays in UEFA for political reasons. Kazakhstan, a Central Asian nation with a sliver of land in Europe, also opted to tussle it out in European football.

Turkey is also mainly Asian, but plays in Europe at a national and club level.

Then comes Russia, a Eurasian nation. European Russia, located to the west of the Ural mountains, is home to Moscow, the capital, as well as most Russians.

But the majority of its territory, with Siberia expanding to the Pacific Ocean, is in Asia – meaning it has the geographical right to request AFC membership.

Dyukov has called for a decision to be made by the end of the year, supposedly in a bid to limit the chances of missing the next World Cup – due to take place in North America’s Mexico, the US and Canada.

He insisted Russia would be in time to compete in the qualification stages and that FIFA would not be opposed to its inclusion.

The Kremlin backs the switch to Asia due to the ongoing political and economic tensions with the US and the EU over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Also, it must be said, unfortunately, we are also growing apart from Europe ideologically,” Dyukov, who attended the 2022 World Cup in Qatar despite Russia’s absence, has said.

Not so supportive of the proposal, however, is much of Russia’s sporting press.

Igor Rabiner, a columnist for one of the most popular papers Sport-Express, warned that a shift to the AFC would be negative for Russian football.

“Think about the case for our clubs, who would never again play against Real Madrid, Liverpool or Milan, and the most they could look forward to would be a game against the best team in Asia, Al-Hilal from Saudi Arabia.”

He suggested that fan interest and club revenue would slump.