'Football has died': how Russia's annexation of Crimea divided a club


When Russia won the right to host this year’s World Cup in 2010, Tavria Simferopol were in Ukraine’s top division. The club’s “ultras” – hardcore fans – sang patriotic songs, and nursed fond memories of Tavria’s biggest triumph: when the club won independent Ukraine’s first Premier League title in 1992.

Eight years later, as the World Cup gets under way, there are two teams called Tavria: one still plays in Simferopol, the capital of Russian-annexed Crimea, and one plays across the newly drawn border in mainland Ukraine.

Russia is hosting the world’s biggest sporting event with relations between Moscow and the west at their lowest point since the cold war. Its annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to sanctions, counter-sanctions and a reappraisal of the threat from Russia in the west.

For Tavria, the annexation split the fanbase along political lines: many of Tavria’s ultras fled to Ukraine, while pro-Russian fans stayed behind to support the newly named TSK-Tavria. But due to international sanctions, the team has been banned from playing in the Russian league. It now plies its trade in an eight-team local Crimean league.

Football in Crimea is a reflection of the broader situation in the peninsula, which has been fully severed from Ukraine but not fully integrated with Russia due to international sanctions.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, opened a bridge joining Crimea to mainland Russia last month amid much fanfare, and a huge, modern new airport has recently replaced the boxy Soviet terminal that had previously served the region.

But the only planes landing at Simferopol international airport come from Russia, because only a handful of nations, including North Korea and Syria, recognise the Russian takeover as legitimate. International sim cards and credit cards do not work, and almost all foreign business is banned due to sanctions.





A Tavria player (in white) fights for the ball during a 2015 home cup match with SKChF Sevastopol at the Lokomotiv stadium in Simferopol.



A TSK-Tavria player (in white) fights for the ball during a 2015 home cup match with SKChF Sevastopol at the Lokomotiv stadium in Simferopol. Photograph: Alamy

After the annexation, the Russian Football Union admitted Tavria, as well as two other Crimean clubs, into the Russian league for the 2014-15 season, but Uefa, European football’s governing body, said it would not allow the situation after the Ukrainian football authorities complained Russia had “stolen” three clubs.

“I don’t know how sport can be affected by sanctions, it’s absolute nonsense,” complained Sergei Borodkin, the president of TSK-Tavria, the new Simferopol-based club, and also the vice-president of Crimea’s football governing body.

“Crimean Football Union (with special status)” is embossed on the sign outside the union’s headquarters in Simferopol, reflecting the uneasy compromise between Russian football and Uefa over the status of the region.

After Kosovo and Gibraltar were granted full Uefa member status in 2016, Crimea is now the only football federation with this special status. This gives the Crimean league recognition, but bans its teams from taking part in Russia-wide competitions.

“Professional football has basically died in Crimea,” said Sergei Portnykh, a 31-year-old Tavria fan who has set up after-school football training for three- to seven-year-olds. “With the younger kids it’s more about physical and psychological development than actual football, but when they get to nine or 10 it’s important for them to have role models.”

Younger children who were not registered in any youth setup prior to 2014 may still be able to join the youth academies of Russian teams. Older players have Uefa registration documents marking them as Ukrainian players, which makes transfers to other countries tricky, though Borodkin said a compromise has been found. That still leaves the problem of the dubious standards in the Crimea-only league.





The new bridge over the Kerch strait linking Crimea to mainland Russia.



The new bridge over the Kerch strait linking Crimea to mainland Russia. Photograph: Sergei Malgavko/TASS

“It’s just not the same any more. You go to the stadium, and there’s such a small crowd, and there are just empty feelings and sadness instead of all the old emotions,” said one Tavria fan who went to every game before the Russian takeover.

He asked to remain anonymous because he said the Russian security service, the FSB, monitored fans for signs of potential violence or pro-Ukraine views. Tavria fans had fought and died on both sides in the war in eastern Ukraine, he said. He is still in touch with some friends who had pro-Ukraine views and left Crimea in the aftermath of the annexation, but they tried to restrict their conversations to football, and not politics.

Tavria fans who moved to Ukraine set up a new club in Beryslav, a small town in south Ukraine. The club plays in the Ukrainian second division as Tavria Simferopol, despite it being no longer based in the Crimean city.

“We have a problem taking players actually from Crimea, because we can’t have any players with a pro-Russian position,” said Oleh Komuniar, a Tavria fan who now lives in Kiev, and is the vice-president of the Crimean football federation in exile.

The team finished this year’s season with an impressive 9-0 victory, but draws crowds of just a few hundred and struggles for finances. Backers of the two Tavrias like to dismiss the other as an irrelevance, claiming not to follow or be interested in the other. They also have differing attitudes to the World Cup being in Russia.

During the tournament, unlike in most other Russian cities, there will be no official fan zone in Simferopol, because Fifa sponsors cannot operate in Crimea. “It would be nice to have a fan zone, but it’s not a problem, we will set up a ‘zone of collective viewing’ instead so everyone here can enjoy the World Cup,” said Borodkin.

Komuniar, speaking from Kiev, was not sure he would watch the World Cup iat all. “Holding a tournament there when they’re killing people in Ukraine is disgusting. If I do watch, I’m going to be supporting all the teams who play against Russia,” he said.



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