Russia flagIn Soviet times a creeping network of veins and arteries kept the footballing and state machines in the eastern bloc beating together as one like some great socio-vascular monolith. Owned and run by government branches, clubs’ fortunes peaked and dipped contingent upon their utility to the Nomenklatura.

In Bulgaria the military team CSKA were richly resourced from above whilst rivals Levski, historically synonymous with social resistance, were manipulated by the Interior Ministry to render them forever runners-up. Elsewhere Kaparty Lviv, a beacon for Ukrainian nationalism at a time when communism was creaking under the weight of its own bureaucratic waste, were shut down by the party leadership in 1981, seven years before state-favourites Dynamo Kiev were given permission to privatise and further entrench their legend as Ukraine’s famously immoveable object. Ask not what your country can do for you, and all that.

The 1990’s brought Glasnost, Perestroika and, in theory, change. Privatisation, on paper, swept away the dry rot that saw clubs bound to a self-interested state monopoly. But in reality they were left with little money with which to take up their place in the new free markets and as fans and investors turned westwards eastern European football fell into a demise that for many clubs, rudderless and broke, is still worsening in 2013.

Small wonder then that talk of a merged league system for the old Soviet nations has pricked ears up in certain quarters, and Gazprom CEO Alexie Miller’s project that would first see the Russian and Ukrainian leagues merge before expanding into the former Soviet space has been greeted enthusiastically by a majority in the prospective countries. But political instabilities in Eastern Europe are growing, and the days of state agendas dictating football policy may be about to return to the picture.

Eastern Europe, and particularly Ukraine, is in the process of becoming a de facto battle ground in a modern-day re-imagining of Cold War politics. Following Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s volte face this month on an agreement with the EU that would have formalised stronger political and economic ties with the European community, speculation became rife that Vladimir Putin had sabotaged the deal by strong-arming the President with threats against Ukrainian-Russian trade tariffs, which Yanukovych later affirmed in spite of some initial protests that Brussels had simply failed to offer his country enough economic support in the agreement.

Whatever the fine detail of the document that went un-signed in Vilnius Moscow is driving a hard line over what it expects from Ukraine in terms of its political and economic loyalties, and so far trade sanctions imposed against their westerly neighbours in retaliation to their cosying up with Brussels are estimated to have cost the Ukrainian economy somewhere in the region of €7billion, largely in the form of lost trade in chocolate and pipes. That figure is a slap in the face for Ukraine but also for the EU, for whom it is now irrefutably clear that Putin will not be sparing the rod as he looks to widen his sphere of influence in the former Soviet rump states.

Talk first emerged of a unification of the Russian and Ukrainian football league systems in late 2012 when Gazprom chief Miller and Russian Audit Chamber chairman Sergei Stepashin voiced the prospect as a possible way of drawing extra revenue for clubs struggling to re-acclimatise after UEFA’s Financial Fair Play initiative came into force.

Little more was said publicly on the issue until Miller, this time backed by Putin’s chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, returned to the plinth earlier this year with a more robust action plan that included financial and infrastructural blueprints. That plan would see 80 clubs competing across four divisions sharing a prize-fund somewhere in the region of $1billion, with 80% of that fund being shared amongst the twenty clubs in the new top-flight (the Premier League model continues to travel well around the world).

Stepashin has since taken a back seat, but with former Russian national coach Valery Gazzaev on board as the project’s technician alongside Miller and Ivanov, the Unified Football Championship boasts hugely influential power-brokers from the worlds of football, politics and commerce.

Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini have been quick to talk down the idea, which in most parts of Europe would be enough to kill the proposal stone dead. But this is Russia, where the rule is run by autocrats who learned the ropes in a culture of ‘at-all-costs’ opacity and Miller, with his direct line to UEFA in the form of a mammoth Champions League sponsorship deal with Gazprom, will not be an easy figure for Nyon to ignore as close-ally Putin looks to grow his eastern-bloc Customs Union.

The battle for hegemony in Eastern Europe, a battle which Moscow has already shown itself to be fiercely determined not to lose with its draconian embargoes against Ukraine and threats to withdraw key security forces from volatile parts of a head-locked Armenia, leaves football open to gross-manipulation towards ends that may not necessarily be in the collective interest. A close relationship with a hugely influential figure at UEFA gives Putin a trump card in any prospective bid to tie his country to its neighbours through football. All that’s left it seems is for Moscow to bunker down and wait for opportunity to knock.

By Robert O’Connor