Regardless of which team they play for, there is one thing football players from the teams of several countries share, which is the logo on their jersey. The logo belongs to Gazprom, a Russian natural gas company. Logo sponsorships are common in football. Teams make money by offering jersey space to sponsors that sell various products. However, while most sponsors are private companies with products that fans can buy, Gazprom is a company owned by the Russian government that sells natural gas to foreign countries. Yet, it is present everywhere in European football. So, if fans cannot buy what they are selling, why is Gazprom spending millions to sponsor football games?
The answer is part of a bigger story that is changing the sport of football; foreign countries using companies they own to burnish their reputations abroad. 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. Various European countries are dependent on Russian gas, and 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 announced plans to reduce 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 to get to Germany, Russia’s gas needed to pass through pipelines crossing countries charging Gazprom transport fees. Most of them went through Ukraine. Today, Ukraine still charges Russia around $2 billion 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 was done through 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 Schroeder was preparing for an election. During his time in office, Schroeder had become friendly with Putin and officially approved the pipeline. Critics in Germany were increasingly apprehensive about the Russian leader’s growing influence. Two months later, Schroeder lost the election to Angela Merkel, but by March he was overseeing Gazprom’s pipeline to Germany. It was also revealed that, before leaving office, Schroeder had approved a secret Gazprom loan that provided over €1 billion to finance the project. Gazprom’s big project in Germany became 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 football 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 is 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 was not Gazprom’s first football 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 football.
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 football empire to include energy partnerships with Chelsea FC, Champions League, and the sport’s most famous tournament, the FIFA World Cup. These sponsorships have made Gazprom’s logo familiar to fans across the world.
Now, Russia controls nearly half the gas consumed by Europe, and other countries are learning from their example. Etihad, Emirates, and Qatar Airways are all 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 football sponsorship offers a way around bad publicity by winning approval on the field. But it is starting to change the sport itself.
Now that it has become common to see a German team sponsored by Russia’s gas company facing off against a French team sponsored by Dubai’s state-owned airline, it is 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 is blown.