Once Gazprom were cut as UEFA partners and Aeroflot was jettisoned as a blue chip Manchester United sponsor, an isolated discussion returned to the Russian football sphere – Europe can go get stuffed.
In November 2019, I took up a new position with the university I worked at. Promoted to head the International Office, the very first meeting I attended at the Ministry of Education was a total eye opener. The then Deputy Minister cornered me during the coffee break and said:
I know you’re more specialised in Europe, that’s comfortable for you, but the future is in the East. Get ready for lots of trips to India and China.
Russia has since the mid-noughties been moving more in an eastern direction and it makes sense. Trade deals and cooperation agreements have been multitude with nations like India, China, Vietnam and others all happy to get a steady supply of access to Russian oil, gas, steel and education.
Almost 16,000 Indian students are enrolled in Russian universities, almost 30,000 Chinese and two years ago there were 104.594 students in Russia from four of the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Last year Russia upped the number of full ride scholarships for Vietnamese students to 1000, with just over 6000 studying on scholarship in Russia right now. Just looking at the figures brings home the fact that Russia has far more soft power in the East than the West. Ho Chi Minh and many other nation creators in Asia studied in Russia, and Vietnam continues to grow closer to Russia in a wide range of areas.
Recently we had a Kazakh university visit and discuss the plans they are making for a network university system in Asia (Russia – Kazakhstan – China – Uzbekistan). Fifteen higher education institutions, 250,000+ students and the universal languages being Russian and English.
Last year, an education exchange was renewed between Russian and ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) that sees hundreds of students from the 10 nations (Brunei, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam) spent a semester or more in Russia each year. It makes sense of course on three counts: History, Geography, Economy.
There are long links between the nations and Russia. Most of Russia lies in Asia (beyond the Urals). Education and living here gives more bang for the buck. All of this tied into the discussion and outline plans of Russian football.
Russian football leaders began the softening up exercise on March 29 having been suspended from UEFA. Former guest on Capital Sports Andrei Kanchelskis was positive towards the idea of moving from UEFA to the AFC.
Both the Russian national team and our clubs need to move on, and play, no matter how the situation develops. If the Asian football confederation is a real option for Russia, then why not?
His interview with my former employer, Championat.com, was one of many which began before April 1. To make sense of it, I contacted and spoke with officials from eight AFC nations in order to gauge their reaction. Between March 30 to April 15 I got the take from: Uzbekistan, Myanmar, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Saudi Arabia, India and Palestine. I asked each the same questions:
- Would you support the Russian Federation joining AFC? Yes, No, Unsure.
- Would affiliation be dependant upon cessation of hostilities in Ukraine? Yes, No, Unsure.
For question 1: 8, 0, 1.
For question 2: 3, 3, 3.
The respondent from Uzbekistan stated that it would be a great boost for the game in Asia, a sentiment echoed by Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. I asked would there not be a danger of domination by Russian clubs or national teams? Most said possibly or probably, though the Indian interviewee reminded me that A-League clubs are no pushovers and Saudi, Chinese, Korean, Iranian and Japanese clubs would have the finance to get in players and coaches to make an impact.
So the view from the East is positive, even if it is just 19% of the 47 members. However, just what would a move to the AFC look like for Russia?
Russia (36) would end up in the Central Asian Football Association (CAFA) region, along with Afghanistan (150), Iran (21), Kyrgyzstan (95), Tajikistan (114), Turkmenistan (134) and Uzbekistan (83). I’ve placed the FIFA rankings in brackets to illustrate where eaach nation stands at present. Russia would be second in the CAFA and fourth in the AFC behind Iran, Japan (23) and South Korea (29). Yet just ahead of Australia (42) and Saudi Arabia (49).
From trips to London, Paris and Dublin, Russia could face treks to Dededo (Guam), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Male (Maldives). They would also face a qualifying system for World Cups that make the Eurovision voting look positively sensible. As Australia found after moving from Oceania to Asia in 2006, being a name in your own household doesn’t always translate to being a household name.
For clubs there would be more chances to win Continental titles, though the reward would be miserly in comparison to the riches on offer by UEFA. The winners of the 2021 AFC Champions League could take home $4.8 million dollars in prizemoney for winning all their matches from Group Stage on. Just winning the final of the UEFA Conference League would bank a club €5 million. 13 matches for an AFC Champions league title and less than for one match in the UEFA Conference League. Add in travel costs and the pittance paid to clubs of $45,000 per group stage match to cover this will make trips to Mumbai or Riyadh an extra pain.
Would Jordan Larsson, Hulk, Roberto Mancini, Guus Hiddink or Gary Mackay be interested in working in an Asian country? How attractive would it be for South American or African or Eastern European players to play in a league that will only offer the prospect of playing against the club champions of India, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan is much different to playing the also rans in Europe where you’ll face Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona and Juventus.
And I’ve not even looked at the second tier continental competition the AFC Cup, where there is no prize money for preliminary or group stages. Russia clubs, even with money, would be down to grabbing journeymen from the Balkans, lower division South Americans and low cost Africans. Or will they?
In parallel to speaking with AFC officials, I also got in touch with senior club officials from the three professional tiers here in Russia. Two from the Premier League, two from the Football National League and three from the FNL-2. I asked them the following question:
Would you support a move to the AFC? Yes, No, Unsure.
The answer: 1, 2, 4.
The third tier officials were more positive though unsure. One of them who works as Vice President of a club in Siberia said that it would be an excellent boost for his club, yet he didn’t want to join the AFC. Each club official felt that there would be a financial shock, though they all said that the government, business and entire region would flourish. It would all depend on if UEFA might allow teams back in 2022-23, since that was taken off the table I asked each official the same question on May 12. The answer: 3,0,4.
The No’s moved into the Unsure camp and the Yes vote grew. One of the Premier League club officials remained unsure for the simple reason that he doubted his club could get high profile players with only AFC competition on offer. He did, however, say that while he was unsure, he would probably vote with joining the AFC if it meant saving the Russian game.
Football is a business and fans look out for what is good for their club first. It’s tribal, natural and we should embrace it. Should Russia join the AFC we could well see Gazprom riches flowing into Asian football and suddenly with the stars aligned, there will be stars lined up to play in the most valuable market in the world.