Why this Russian gas company sponsors soccer teams
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Why this Russian gas company sponsors soccer teams

These players all have one thing in common: this logo — even though he plays on a team in Germany and they play for a team in Russia. It’s also on this team in Serbia, at games
in England, and on sidelines in Italy. The logo belongs to Gazprom,
a Russian natural gas company. Logo sponsorships are normal in soccer: Teams make money offering jersey space to
sponsors selling things like credit cards, cars and cell phones. But Gazprom isn’t like most sponsors: private
companies with products soccer fans can buy. Instead, it’s a company owned by the Russian
government that makes money selling natural gas to foreign countries. Yet, it’s everywhere in European soccer. So, if soccer fans can’t buy what they’re
selling, why is Gazprom spending millions
to sponsor soccer games? The answer is part of a larger story
that’s changing the sport of soccer. Foreign countries using companies they own
to burnish their reputations abroad, and to understand why Russia is involved,
you need to look at a map. Russia has the world’s largest
natural gas reserves and most of them are located in Arctic gas fields controlled by Gazprom. The company is led by Alexey Miller,
a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Since 2005, the Russian government
has owned a majority stake in Gazprom. Meaning company profits are under Putin’s control
and gas sales, along with oil, account for around 40% of Russia’s annual budget. This map shows how dependent various European
countries are on Russian gas and you can see that Eastern European countries are more dependent
than countries further west. At the end of the 20th century, Germany represented
the biggest opportunity for Gazprom. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had announced
plans to phase out coal and nuclear power, which meant Germany would need more natural
gas to maintain their energy supply. Gazprom wanted to get it to them, but there
was a problem. To get to Germany, Russia’s gas
needed pass to through pipelines crossing countries charging Gazprom transport fees. And most of them went through Ukraine a country that has a
complicated relationship with Russia. Today, Ukraine still charges Russia $2-3 billion
dollars every year to pump gas through to Europe. So, starting back in 2005, Russia began working
on a strategy to bypass Ukraine and ship their gas directly to Western Europe. This is the Nord Stream pipeline a route through The Baltic Sea
straight to Northern Germany. In late 2005, Gazprom was in the final stages
of financing the project and Germany’s chancellor was preparing for an election. During his time in office, Gerhard Schroeder
had become friendly with Putin and critics in Germany were increasingly concerned about
the Russian leader’s growing influence. Just a few weeks before the election, Schroeder
met with Putin to sign an agreement officially approving the pipeline. Two months later, Schroeder lost his re-election
but by March he had found a new job: overseeing Gazprom’s pipeline to Germany. It also came out that, before leaving office,
Schroeder had approved a secret Gazprom loan that provided over a billion euros
to finance the project. Soon, the story of Gazprom’s big project
in Germany was becoming a story of scandal, corruption, and the creeping influence of Russia. But then the story changed. In 2006, Gazprom signed a deal to sponsor
the German soccer team FC Schalke 04. At the time, Schalke’s finances were worrying
team officials and Gazprom’s sponsorship provided money the team desperately needed. At a press conference announcing the deal,
a Gazprom chairman said Schalke’s connections with the German energy sector were why they
decided to become their sponsor. Schalke plays in Gelsenkirchen – a town in
Germany’s Ruhr Valley, where much of the country’s energy industry is based. It’s also close to the town of Rehden, a hub
for pipelines to the rest of Europe and home to Western Europe’s largest
natural gas storage facilities. Schalke wasn’t Gazprom’s first soccer deal. The year before, they had bought a controlling
stake in a team on the other end of the Nord Stream route: the Russian team
Zenit St. Petersburg. Gazprom’s investment made
Zenit a major force in soccer. Two years after taking control, Zenit won
their first-ever league championship. They’ve been able to sign expensive foreign
stars, like Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel and the Brazilian forward Hulk, and Gazrpom uses Zenit for marketing stunts: like having players scrimmage on the side
of their offshore gas platform. In 2006, as Gazprom logos were revealed around
Schalke’s stadium, German headlines were hailing the Russian gas giant for pumping
millions into the German team. To celebrate the deal, Schalke’s new jersey
was unveiled in a ceremony before Schalke and Zenit played a friendly match in Russia. And, over the next few years, the Gazprom
logo would become a team symbol displayed at Schalke games and printed on official merchandise. Schalke also won a championship in 2011 and by
then, Nord Stream had been completed, and that year, Gerhard Schroeder, Angela Merkel and
other European officials gathered to celebrate as it began pumping gas to Germany. There was also another struggling team whose
jerseys started featuring Gazprom’s logo: The Serbian team Red Star Belgrade. Red Star was about 25 million dollars in debt
when Gazprom signed to become their jersey sponsor. And, again, there was also another pipeline:
The South Stream would have bypassed Ukraine by going directly through Serbia to Southern Europe. That project closed in 2014, but Gazprom has
continued increasing their access to Europe by building Nord Stream 2, a second pipeline
doubling the amount of gas flowing from Russia to Germany. Gazprom has also expanded their soccer empire
to include energy partnerships with Chelsea football club, Champions League and the sport’s
most famous tournament: the FIFA World Cup. These sponsorships have made Gazprom’s logo
familiar not just to fans in Europe, but across the world. “We light up the football. Gazprom. Official partner.” It’s in commercials before games, and on
jerseys and sidelines once it starts. FC Schalke fans have also started to see
Nord Stream 2 ads at home games. And, while climate activists like Greenpeace
have staged protests to point out Gazprom’s threat to Arctic resources, Gazprom had no
trouble renewing their sponsorships. Now, Russia controls nearly half the gas consumed
by Europe and other countries are learning from their example. Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar Airways all are
owned by sovereign states in the Middle East with interests that go beyond selling airline
tickets. As the example of Gazprom shows, having a
prominent soccer sponsorship offers a way around bad publicity by winning approval on the field. If you’re a fan, that can feel like a big opportunity:
their money helps teams win major tournaments, but it’s starting to change the sport itself. Now that it’s become common to see a Serbian
team sponsored by Russia’s gas company facing off against a French team sponsored by Dubai’s
state-owned airline, it’s starting to seem like the field is hosting two competitions
at once: A match between two teams, and a larger play for foreign influence
that continues long after the final whistle.


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