The Faltering Fullback, a pub in north London, is a long way from Crimea. Tonight it will be heaving; dozens packed into its nooks and crannies, many more filling out the cavernous barn hall out the back, all watching the football on big screens. The Champions League is returning and Arsenal, the local team, are playing last year’s champions, Bayern Munich.
They’re a relatively smart bunch in the Fullback – they’ll know what’s happening on the opposite side of Europe. And as they watch the adverts before, during and after the game they will realise that this most European of nights is being played out on a stage paid for by the Russian state.
Gazprom, the Russian energy giant that’s now the largest natural gas company in the world, is a Champions League sponsor and the perfect example of why the West is finding it so difficult to consider economic sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s government.
Despite the early rhetoric, Europe has failed to come up with any sanction, economic or otherwise, that might persuade Putin that annexing a part of another country has consequences. The French still want their arms deals, the Germans still want their gas deals and the Brits still want their flow of funds into the City of London. And football, a sport that once had values, has become a rich man’s plaything that can be used and abused by whoever pays the most.
Neither Gazprom nor Uefa will say how much the sponsorship deal is worth but similar arrangements have been estimated at around €50m a year. That’s out of a total of €1.34bn in commercial revenue that the Champions League brings in. Football could afford to lose Putin’s gas cash – fear not, Wayne Rooney would still get his 300 grand a week – yet there is no chance that Uefa, European football’s governing body, would ever consider scrapping the sponsorship deal. Just as there is no chance that London’s most famous oligarch – Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club – would ever face any protests for his backing for Vladimir Putin.
(Chelsea aren’t playing tonight, more’s the shame. The picture would have been too perfect: the Putin-pumped gas giant sponsoring the Putin-supporting oligarch’s fantasy team while the rest of Europe watches on.)
The Gazprom sponsorship deal always seemed odd. “Brand awareness” was the phrase used by Gazprom’s chairman, Alexey Miller, when he explained why he had signed the deal two years ago. But why does a gas company that sells to countries, not individuals, need to advertise? It is, simply, about prestige. Or about buying prestige. It is about whitewashing a reputation; laundering, if you will.
What sacrifices are we willing to make for our democratic values? What price are we willing to pay to try to prevent one country invading another? Tonight, in the Fullback and in pubs and homes across London, the UK and all over Europe, as we watch the entertainment paid for by Putin, we will have our answer. We may care about Crimea but we care more about our football.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s foreign editor.