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Brought to You by Gazprom, UEFA Champions League Sponsors

03/04/2014 12:42 BST | Updated 02/06/2014 10:59 BST

2014-04-02-Euromaidan_Kiev_20140218_1508.JPG

Molotov cocktails in Euromaiden, via Wikipedia

Being a football fan is often uncomfortable. The Champions League provides the most refined, exquisite discomfort. It displays the best of world football - grace, innovation, drama. I watched the recent round of fixtures with devotion, looking on through my fingers as Bayern Munich annihilated my beloved Arsenal: discomfort in the bitterness of defeat is one of football's many pleasures.

I am also increasing concerned by the trappings of modern football, by rising ticket prices and players who earn dizzying multiples of real people's salaries. It is an unease with a sport that is become increasingly corporate and globalised. These are legitimate worries, but they may be a dirty necessity: the money from selling club shirts in Asia and corporate boxes to execs and sponsorship deals to anyone who'll pay is what funds the eliteness of this generation of European football teams. Sometimes a whole heap of money can produce a beautiful thing.

One international corporation willing to pay for association with the Champions League's beauty is the competition's official sponsor, Gazprom. My discomfort with this relationship has been made more acute over the past few weeks as my attention to the Champions League has dovetailed with my equally rapt but somewhat different attention to the events in Ukraine.

I should be clear: Gazprom is in no way responsible itself for any of the things that have happened in Ukraine. Nor do I believe Vladimir Putin to be a vicious, psychopathic warlord, instead trying to acknowledge that he's a political leader in a nation I don't know very intimately who is facing up to some events that from his perspective must be fairly cataclysmic. But this doesn't make the discomfort go away.

Gazprom often functions as an arm of Russian foreign policy. The Russian government own a controlling 50.002% share in the company, and has a legal export monopoly for natural gas. Putin has praised Gazprom as a Russian 'national champion', a concept that encourages private companies to act in the state's interest.

One of the primary ways in which Gazprom acts for Russia is by controlling the supply of energy to its international customers. Many of the nations Russia would seek to influence are heavily dependent on Russian energy: roughly 30% of EU market share, rising to 90% or even 100% in much of eastern Europe, with 66% market share in Ukraine, a country which may or may not consider itself at least in part ethnically Russian, and which Mr Putin may or may not be planning to annex.

With energy prices such a sensitive part of household expenditure, especially in relatively poorer and colder eastern Europe, it is clear that control of the supply can become a fearsome political weapon.

Energy price disputes have characterised relations between Russia and Ukraine in the last decade. Ukraine needs Russian energy, and Russia, to a less extent, needs Ukrainian land to run their pipes to Europe over: the Ukrainian pipes are the main entry point for Russia exports to Europe. The result is to bind Ukraine and its politicians, who model themselves in Putin's autocratic, state-asset-gobbling image, into Russia's sphere of influence.

One of the things about revolutionary states - not that I would go so far as to term Ukraine 'revolutionary' just yet - is that they can be a little less motivated by self-interest than autocracies designed to enrichen an elite cadre, at least in their early, romantic stages. One possible motive for Mr Putin's aggressive actions in the Crimea is to remind any Ukrainians too swept up in dreams of democracy and just governance that controlling energy prices through Gazprom is not the Russian Federation's only policy instrument for tightening the ties that bind.

Gazprom's Champions League sponsorship is a very different foreign policy instrument. It is a projection of power, confidently positioning itself - and hence, implicitly, Russia - with other major international brands. Gazprom also hopes to gain power, hoping that some of the beauty and charm of elite football will come to be associated with their energy provision. Again, there are legitimate commercial aims - but there are also legitimate political ones. Gazprom want you to think 'Champions League' when you think of them, not 'manipulating energy supply to coerce ex-Soviet Bloc states'.

As money can be laundered, so can reputations, and UEFA's acceptance of Gazprom's sponsorship is part of football's ever-increasing willingness to do the laundering. The greatest discomfort is in knowing that this is what is funding the sport's ever increasing quality. Not to examine the sources of such money would be to allow the laundering to succeed.

I wonder during half time whether I care enough to write this article. When the whistle goes for the second half, my mind is back on the football.