Despite sanctions, Crimea joins Russia’s World Cup party

SEVASTOPOL, Crimea: Like football fans worldwide, people in the Crimean city of Sevastopol wanted to enjoy watching the World Cup together on big screens in public places.

They managed to do so, even though Crimea is subject to Western sanctions over Russia’s annexation of the region from Ukraine in 2014 and the World Cup’s organisers and sponsors do not want to fall foul of the sanctions.

Soccer Football – World Cup – Group D – Argentina vs Iceland

The public screenings involved compromises and finessing of World Cup rules, people involved in staging them told Reuters.

Crimean officials had wanted to open an official World Cup "Fan Fest" for crowds to watch the games. That was blocked when the tournament’s sponsors said they did not want to be involved, said Yuri Vetokha, President of the Crimean Football Federation.

The pictures shown at the public viewings came from Russian broadcasters although rules set by world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, stipulate that they should come from the holder of the broadcast license for each territory – in Crimea’s case, two Ukrainian television stations.

The Russian World Cup organisers told Crimean officials staging the public viewings to screen the games via two services that re-transmit Russian television stations, Vetokha said.

"It’s possible – and this is just my opinion – that it might somehow be linked to sanctions," Vetokha, a member of Crimea’s pro-Russian legislature, said when asked why that arrangement was put in place.

FIFA and the local organising committee (LOC) which staged the World Cup in Russia on FIFA’s behalf did not respond to Reuters’ questions about public viewings in Crimea.

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The Football Federation of Ukraine said that, as far as it was aware, FIFA had not officially authorised any fan zones or the broadcast of World Cup matches in Crimea. It also said it did not recognise the Crimean Football Federation.

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group D - Argentina vs Iceland

Russia’s match with Uruguay on June 25 was shown on a big screen on Sevastopol’s waterfront. There was no FIFA branding, sponsors’ logos or mention of the World Cup around the screen, and the pictures were from Russia’s state-owned First Channel.

Other matches involving Russia were shown at public viewings around Crimea using Russian broadcasters’ pictures, according to photographs and videos of the events and witnesses.

UNWILLING SPONSORS

Under international law, Crimea is part of Ukraine. The sanctions make it risky or impossible for major international companies to do business on the peninsula.

Vetokha said the Crimean Football Union held negotiations with both FIFA and the LOC before the tournament. Asked about FIFA-endorsed Fan Fests, he said FIFA had told his union they could be held only if the sponsors of the fan events gave their approval. No such agreement was reached, he said.

The sponsors include McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Adidas and Budweiser, a brand of brewer Anheuser-Busch Inbev NV.

Reuters sought comment from all 16 sponsors associated with the World Cup and the Fan Fests. AB Inbev said it had not been part of any conversations related to Fan Zones in Crimea. Russian railways monopoly RZhD said it conducted no negotiations about fan events. Alfa-Bank declined to comment. Russian diamond miner Alrosa said its sponsorship did not involve any fan zones.

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The other sponsors did not immediately respond.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - World Cup - Group B - Portugal vs Spain

Vladimir Bobkov, chairman of the Sports, Education, Science and Youth Committee in Crimea’s Russian-backed government, said fan events went ahead without any official World Cup branding.

"Naturally, we’re not calling them official fan zones, in order to not provoke a furore," he said.

Vetokha said the other topic of talks with FIFA and the LOC was showing the matches at public viewings.

FIFA says public viewings must comply with its rules and that anyone in breach of them is liable for prosecution.

"We were given permission to organise non-commercial public viewings for up to 5,000 viewers," Vetokha said. "The LOC gave us the go-ahead for that, in consultation with FIFA."

It was a verbal agreement, he said.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - World Cup - Group B - Portugal vs Spain

Vetokha said the LOC had stipulated that the pictures should be screened via NTV or Tricolor, two Russian services that offer television bundles. Russian stations can, however, be picked up in Crimea without a bundling service.

Matches were also broadcast at a state-run movie theatre in Crimea called Sevastopol Kino. Public viewings in cinemas are subject to regulation by FIFA and Dmitry Garnega, the cinema’s director, said FIFA had denied his application but he went ahead anyway.

"We wanted to do everything officially, to broadcast matches. We appealed to FIFA. We were basically told to buzz off," Garnega said.