It is Tuesday evening at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and a welcome party has been assembled in the arrivals lounge.
Three women in traditional Russian clothing, along with a man playing an accordion. All are there to greet the Cameroon squad off their flight and for Rigobert Song, the visitors’ head coach, there is even a tray of freshly baked bread as a gift. Smiles for the cameras, all conviviality. “Welcome to Russia!” exclaims the national football association in a social media post.
The staged greeting attempted to paint a picture of normality to the rest of the world yet normal ceased here almost 20 months ago, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine to begin a conflict that still offers little hope of resolution.
Russia’s national teams — men and women — have not played a competitive game since. Thrown out of qualification for the 2022 World Cup by FIFA, they have also been denied the chance to feature at next summer’s European Championships by UEFA. Even a proposal to readmit Russia’s under-17s teams was formally parked this week amid strong opposition from western European nations.
Russia has been left to live in football’s international wilderness, a team forgotten, but this week has shown a nation — led by President Vladimir Putin — intent on retaining relevance through its enduring political power.
A Cameroon squad that included Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana and Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo this week became only the second footballing visitors to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022. Iraq had been the last to come in March, beaten 2-0 in Saint Petersburg.
Moscow’s first taste of international football in 25 months drew close to a capacity crowd to the VTB Arena, home of Dynamo Moscow, on Thursday evening. Fyodor Chalov’s close-range header late in the first half proved enough for Russia in a tepid 1-0 victory but this was as much about symbolism. FIFA and UEFA can put up obstacles but life will go on.
Reports in Africa have suggested that all of Cameroon’s costs had been covered by the host FA but, with another game to come against Kenya on Tuesday, Russia’s is now a fixture list drawn up by geopolitics.
Allies and strategic partners have been prepared to fill the void that has come without competitive matches and the scope of those is spreading. Plenty shun Russia for their aggression shown in Ukraine but there are others willing to let sport grease the wheels of international trade.
Cameroon heading to Moscow this week was no accident. President Paul Biya visited Saint Petersburg in August to consolidate military agreements that were signed in April 2022 and reaffirmed Cameroon’s support of Russia in the Ukraine war.
Kenya is another African country where ties are being strengthened. A trade pact was agreed in March after Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov visited Nairobi, with Kenya a significant importer of fertilisers and grain.
Even in Europe, there is now a willingness to look beyond events in Ukraine. Turkey, a NATO member, is playing host to Tuesday’s game with Kenya in Antalya, a coastal city traditionally popular with Russian tourists.
For all it is a nation condemned by the West, Russia retains plenty of friends. The last 13 months have brought games against neighbours Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan before Iran and Iraq, two other nations familiar with isolation from the West, were opponents in March.
This season has already brought friendly games against Egypt Under-23s and Qatar, the tiny nation that was named as a World Cup host in the same controversial process that had given Russia the 2018 tournament.
“You have to remain engaged with international football in some way but always with Russia there is this geopolitical dimension which is significant,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at the SKEMA Business School in Paris.
“Prominent within this is legitimacy, to be still seen as a legitimate member of the international football community. If the Russian national team didn’t represent an opportunity of some description, then Qatar and Cameroon would not have engaged with Russia.
“This is not necessarily a move by anyone, least of all the Russians, as part of a long-term plan to reintegrate Russia into the international sporting community. I see it as continuing to disrupt and divide, using football to serve the interests of Russia.
“If you look at Cameroon, a game with Russia was supposed to have taken place earlier in the year but didn’t. What’s happened in the meantime, which probably involved some canny negotiations, was that there was a major state visit of the Cameroonian president to Russia in the summer.
“I’d see this football match as an outcome of that. There are games within games, that’s what’s happening. Russia and Putin are always very happy to play games within games.”
Not since November 2021, when beaten 1-0 by Croatia in a World Cup qualifier, has Russia’s men’s side played a competitive fixture and, until Cameroon’s visit, only once had they played on home soil in that time.
The visit of Cameroon was Russia’s seventh friendly played against a senior side since the invasion of Ukraine and, with the approval of UEFA and CAF, it was a game that even counted towards FIFA’s rankings, where Russia currently stand between Ecuador and Nigeria in 39th.
The Russian women’s team, who had their qualification for last summer’s European Championships revoked, are 25th (between the Republic of Ireland and New Zealand) in a year that has so far only brought friendly challenges against Iran, China and Belarus.
Bringing Cameroon to Moscow, however, was Russia’s biggest sporting moment since the Ukraine war began. An opponent that has featured in eight of the last 11 World Cups and, unlike the majority of teams faced in the last 14 months, a recognised footballing force.
Two of Cameroon’s most high-profile names were eventually absent from the travelling squad, despite being named in an initial roll call. Napoli midfielder Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa and Bayern Munich forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting did not make it to Moscow, raising a question for Song. “Are those players absent for political reasons? No way,” he said on the eve of the game. Both were said to be nursing “little problems”, with the Africa Cup of Nations beginning in January.
There is nothing to suggest Anguissa and Choupo-Moting had any issues with playing in Russia but others have. Bosnia and Herzegovina were due to play a friendly against Russia last November only for Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic to lead a backlash that saw the game scrapped.
Europe no longer offers Russia the opportunities it once did but there are other, more receptive markets to be targeted.
“Russia is all over Africa right now,” says Chadwick. “Whether we’re talking about traditional nations, like Angola, who have had long-term relations with the Soviet Union, or Burkina Faso, Eritrea and Sudan, where there’s intense competition for economic and political influence.
“It sets football in the context of a much bigger geopolitical and economic battle. There’s something about influence, power and control in Africa, with football used as an instrument of policy to build influence.”
Monday’s friendly against Kenya is also significant for its location. A short warm-weather training camp will take place in the Turkish resort of Antalya before a friendly is staged at the Mardan Sports Complex. Russia playing in a European outpost might have been considered unthinkable 12 months ago.
“There’s a peculiar relationship between Turkey and Russia,” explains Chadwick. “On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member. But on the other hand, relations between Ankara and Moscow are reasonably good.
“My interpretation of this is not necessarily two willing allies coming together — from a Russian perspective, this an opportunity to drive a wedge between Turkey and the West because inevitably it comes with some sensitivities and controversy. It does challenge UEFA and Europe to see Turkey placed next to Russia in this way. It’s more geopolitically provocative than simply having the Russian national team playing in front of Russian tourists in Antalya.
“Russian motives tend to be malign. There’s no sense of benevolence or commercial opportunity. There’ll be a malign reason underpinning that game in Turkey.”
Behind all the politics and posturing is a national football team with nowhere to go. FIFA and UEFA have no support from within to alter their stance, especially not in a week when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to suspend the Russian Olympic Committee “with immediate effect until further notice” after it was decided Ukrainian territories had been illegally annexed.
Russia’s sportsmen and women must live with the consequences of Putin’s military attacks on a neighbour and to the footballers, there is no suggestion competitive games will return in the near future.
The spring brought talk of Russia joining the Central Asian Football Association (CAFA) where they could be surrounded by like-minded states, such as Iran, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. That did not materialise and, for now, they remain UEFA’s headache.
There had been a movement for Russia’s under-17s to be allowed to resume competitive games before next year’s European Championship, with UEFA initially arguing that boys and girls should not be punished for the actions of adults.
Strong opposition, including from the English FA, eventually ensured the proposal was blocked. “We are grateful to all our European partners who supported our protest against the admission of Russian teams,” said the Ukrainian FA on Tuesday.
Russia can play its friendlies but is on the outside looking in. Valery Karpin’s squad reported to the Novogorsk training centre in Moscow on Monday and with the exception of three players — Aleksandr Golovin (Monaco), Daler Kuzyaev (Le Havre) and Aleksei Miranchuk (Atalanta) – all 27 were called up from Russian Premier League squads. Eighteen of the players had caps in single figures. The faces from the old guard, including Russia’s joint-record scorer Artem Dzyuba, have been moved on.
“The Russia squad had been very stale but now we can see the development of players is much better,” says Alexey Yaroshevsky, a football commentator based in Moscow. “There is Arsen Zakharyan, who just joined Real Sociedad in the summer, and also Sergei Pinyayev, who became the youngest scorer for the national team recently aged 18.
“He was on trial with Manchester United back in the day (2019). He is now shredding the Russian Premier League apart at Lokomotiv Moscow. We can see players coming up but you understand that these guys don’t have a chance to impress on the international stage.
“It might not be a golden generation but it might be on its way. The question is whether they continue to play in Russia where there are so few opportunities to play international football.”
The theory is that this is a promising crop of Russian players, enjoying greater opportunities in a domestic league that has seen an exodus of foreign talent.
Ten years ago, the Russian Premier League had 227 foreign players from 69 different countries. Now that number has fallen to 139 from 49. This year’s departures of Brazilian forward Malcom and Croatian defender Dejan Lovren from Zenit Saint Petersburg leave Spartak Moscow team-mates Victor Moses and Quincy Promes among the most high-profile names remaining in Russia’s top flight.
Others are flourishing, with the unfancied Krasnodar unbeaten at the top of the Russian Premier League. Not that there will be a chance for any club to advance to the Champions League or Europa League — all those doors remain shut, just as they are with the national team.
“Maybe someday it all will be resolved and the team will be allowed to play on the same pitches again,” adds Yaroshevsky. “People think sport and politics should not be in the same boat but in fact they are.”
Just look at Russia’s footballing opponents in 2023 for proof of that.
(Top photo: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images)