Russia loses Champions League final to Paris; Sochi F1 axed
LONDON (AP) — Russia was stripped of hosting the Champions League final by UEFA on Friday with St. Petersburg replaced by Paris, and Formula One dropped this season’s Russian Grand Prix at Sochi, as the invasion of Ukraine drew punitive measures across the sporting world.
Manchester United also dropped Russian state-owned airline Aeroflot as a sponsor citing “events in Ukraine” after the company was banned in Britain on Thursday as part of sanctions.
Although UEFA still has Gazprom as a Champions League sponsor, the final will no longer be staged at the St. Petersburg stadium named after the Russian state-owned energy firm. The climax to the European men’s football season will still be held on May 28 but now at the 80,000-seat Stade de France in the Saint-Denis suburb of the French capital after the decision by UEFA’s executive committee.
It followed discussions led by UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin that involved the European Commission and French President Emmanuel Macron in recent days after concerns were raised about the status of Russia retaining such a prestigious event after its aggression toward another European country.
UEFA thanked Macron for his “personal support and commitment to have European club football’s most prestigious game moved to France at a time of unparalleled crisis.”
Alexander Dyukov, a Russian member of the UEFA executive committee, complained the decision was taken for “political reasons.” Dyukov also opposed UEFA ordering Russian clubs and national teams to play at neutral venues until further notice — a ruling also imposed on Ukrainian sides.
The move comes as Russian bombs and troops pounded Ukraine during the invasion’s first full day, and world leaders on Friday began to fine-tune a response meant to punish the Russian economy and its leaders, including President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
The F1 race wasn’t due until September in the Black Sea resort of Sochi but the motorsport series leadership decided it would be “impossible” to stage the Grand Prix after talks with teams and the FIA governing body. American team Haas also dropped the sponsorship of Russian company Uralkali during preseason testing in Barcelona. Nikita Mazepin of Haas is the only Russian driver on the F1 grid this season.
“We are watching the developments in Ukraine with sadness and shock and hope for a swift and peaceful resolution to the present situation,” F1 said in a statement.
The French government will work with UEFA to help to rescue footballers and their families who “face dire human suffering, destruction and displacement,” European football’s governing body said in a statement.
There is the unresolved matter of Russia still being due to host Poland in World Cup qualifying playoff semifinals in Moscow. Poland wants the game taken out of Russia, but FIFA has yet to decide.
UEFA was more decisive on the Champions League final hosting, which was welcomed by the British government.
“Russia must not be allowed to exploit sporting and cultural events on the world stage to legitimize its unprovoked, premeditated and needless attack against a sovereign democratic state,” said British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who has the sports brief.
This is the third consecutive year that UEFA has had to change its Champions League final location after two switches due to coronavirus issues. The Stade de France last hosted the Champions League final 16 years ago, when Barcelona beat Arsenal in the 2006 final.
UEFA has two weeks before the next set of Champions League games to resolve the issue of Gazprom adverts flashing around stadium pitches. Reinforcing the company’s close links to UEFA, Dyukov is a CEO of a Gazprom subsidiary as well as sitting on European football’s top decision-making body.
Gazprom’s logo has already been removed this week from the jerseys of German club Schalke but it remains a sponsor.
Away from soccer, the International Ski Federation announced that Russia will not host any more of its World Cup events this winter. The decision came after a farcical attempt to hold ski cross races on Friday in the Urals resort Sunny Valley one day after Russia started an invasion of Ukraine.
Only a handful of Russians started and dozens of racers from all other countries did not take part. FIS cited ”the safety of all participants and to maintain the integrity of the World Cup” for calling off five scheduled events in the next month. Replacement venues are being sought.
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.