Don’t confuse sport and politics! A pleasant phrase that has been utopian for ages. Unfortunately, the two worlds are dangerously intertwined, they live in symbiosis. For example, how did hockey serve Russian leader Vladimir Putin in terms of political power, popularity and propaganda? The biggest stars of the choir support him, he himself is a key figure in the birth of the KHL and a man who pulled the strings of world hockey through René Fasel.
He has been President of Russia with a four-year hiatus since 2000. Vladimir Putin is a dictator without whose knowledge the wind does not blow in the largest country on the planet. Its influence logically extends to all spheres of society. Sports included.
In recent years, you have seen Putin receiving champagne from the World Hockey Champions Cup from Alexander Ovechkin. How he stumbles on skates on the ice with choir legends Fetisov, Makarov or Bur and the keepers do their best to throw him. Or how he spends time in friendly conversation with IIHF President René Fasel.
The Swiss dentist ruled world hockey for 27 years. He finished last year. He was and still is in a very friendly relationship with Putin. At this year’s Olympics, Fasel outraged the world by cheering on Russia. “It’s time for revenge. Go ahead, Russia, go ahead!” he said in an interview with the Russian state agency TASS. Then he apologized. During the Cup World Cup 2018, he rushed from Denmark to Moscow to witness the inauguration of the re-elected leader of the expanding federation.
|Vladimir Putin has scored so many goals at the turn of the year in a hockey game of former stars. As always, he was the main face of the event. The defense, made up of elite Soviet names, has traditionally split, leaving the sole Russian president to score.|
He was also on the staff of Putin’s propaganda show in Sochi in May. He enjoyed coming to the president’s private event, which was a legends hockey game, and took on the role of referee.
After a few weeks earlier, Fasel had kissed Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, watching from the ice as another Eastern despot, surrounded by hockey stars of the past, score nine goals and, as always, be named the main star of the match. “Thank you, Mr. President, for developing the sport. I am happy to be here with you,” Fasel stammered into the microphone in crummy Russian.
The collective is more than a sanction
As blood flowed through the streets of Minsk, Fasel fought to prevent Belarus from winning last year’s World Cup. However, under pressure from Škoda-led sponsors, the championship was ultimately only confirmed to Latvia, the originally elected second co-host was cut. At that point, the IIHF decided that punishing Lukashenko would be painless enough. It has no oil, gas or atomic bombs.
But would the world dare to take a similar approach to Russia?
Excluding the group from all sporting events, the Putin-led state would affect far more than any economic sanctions that have been said so far.
At first, however, he showed no interest in hockey as such. Russia’s two biggest clubs – St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow – are the largest state-owned energy companies controlled by Putin’s cronies. At the beginning of this century, the two giants were on the verge of collapse. CSKA in particular has almost disappeared.
It was only in 2008, thanks to Putin, that the clubs came into being. However, both serve primarily as political projects and as an opportunity to control public opinion.
The president decided to pay more attention to hockey based on Russia’s victory at the World Cup in Canada in 2007. A wave of patriotism and enthusiasm flooded the country. The idea of the Continental Hockey League, touted as the future of European hockey and a competition that will soon surpass the quality of the NHL, quickly came to fruition.
Until then, Putin was not able to skate properly. But suddenly he became a great defender and promoter of hockey. “He saw in him a way to transform his own macho-patriotic image. He commissioned his closest acquaintances to lead the league, the richest companies joined the biggest clubs,” writes Russian journalist Slava Malamud living in the stranger.
Sponsors include Gazprom (the largest natural gas company in the world), VTB Banka (the 2nd largest public bank in Russia), Aeroflot (state-owned airlines) and Sogaz (insurance companies). Then Megafon (mobile operator), Fonbet (betting office) or Russian Post.
“But the biggest support is SKA St. Petersburg which represents Putin’s hometown, or CSKA with an amazing tradition, which is a symbol in the country. At the same time, it was essential for Putin to fully restore the government of the national team as a source of patriotic pride, as was the case in the Soviet Union,” continued Malamud.
Russian hockey and politics are historically inseparable. It has always been so. It has always been part of the political game in Russia or the USSR. The stadium was an arena in which the Soviets defeated the West. Putin used it as a propaganda tool. A way to connect with success and national pride.
The fact that Russia is a country of unlimited possibilities was also demonstrated by a recent change in the exchange of the richest club in Saint Petersburg. The famous trainer Valeri Bragin was ousted from the position of head coach by a certain Roman Rotenberg. A wealthy man who has never played hockey himself or coached anywhere. He is the son of Boris Rotenberg, a Russian oligarch and friend of Vladimir Putin. The same family also owns the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. The chairman of the St. Petersburg club is fellow oligarch Gennady Timchenko, a member of Putin’s closest group of friends, whose assets are estimated at $25 billion. They had all been high on Western sanctions lists for years.