Foreign sports stars flee Russia as world shuns their teams

Darko Vojinovic/AP/File
Russia players react at the end of the 2019 Women's EuroBasket European Basketball Championship match between Russia and Sweden in Belgrade, Serbia, July 6, 2019.
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Less than a year ago, Russia’s domestic sports leagues, like their peers across Europe, flourished with a mix of foreign and domestic players.

What a difference a war makes.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The Ukraine war’s ramifications may not be hitting the Russian public hard, but Russian sports are suffering as foreign players and organizations boycott them.

Russian basketball, hockey, and soccer teams have been excluded from international competition since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, and star foreign players are dropping their contracts and leaving the country. U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner’s 9-year prison sentence on drug smuggling charges has not improved the atmosphere.

Russian athletes have been shut out of international sports before – from the Russian Revolution in 1917 until 1952 – and the effects were clear. “There was no way to compare our level” with that of other countries, says Nikolai Yeremenko, a leading sports journalist.

Some veteran Soviet athletes say Russia’s isolation should be taken as an opportunity to better develop Russian players. But Russian sports fans will be the biggest losers, as the quality of games drops in the absence of foreigners.

“Right now we have no foreign players in our club,” says Sergei Druzhinin, manager of the Metallurg ice hockey team in Magnitogorsk. “The level of our games ... will be dragged down.”

Less than a year ago, Russia’s domestic sports leagues, like their peers across Europe, flourished with a mix of foreign and domestic players.

What a difference a war makes.

Today, amid deepening Cold War-like tensions between the Kremlin and the West, and as WNBA star Brittney Griner faces a 9-year sentence in a Russian penal colony, Russian basketball, hockey, and soccer teams are finding themselves forced out of international competition. And many of the one-time “legionnaires” – foreign players – on whom they depend are dropping their contracts and leaving the country.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The Ukraine war’s ramifications may not be hitting the Russian public hard, but Russian sports are suffering as foreign players and organizations boycott them.

The alienation of Russian athletes from global sports has been an ongoing saga for years, since massive doping allegations largely forced official Russia out of the Olympics. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February led most international sports federations to ban Russian teams from scheduled competitions.

But less well known is the fate of hundreds of foreign players who, like Ms. Griner, had brought their expertise to far-flung local Russian sports teams that had been developing reputations at both the national and European levels.

The war has brought all that to a grinding halt, and upended European championship hopes for Russian basketball and soccer teams. Many European and American players have decamped while the few who remain have been subjected to considerable opprobrium.

The exodus of foreign legionnaires has been the subject of considerable debate in the Russian sports media, with some arguing that it spells the end of Russia’s sports ambitions for a generation, while others claim it will give more opportunities to Russian players and boost domestic sports development.

“Not enough qualified players”

Ms. Griner, a leading player with the Urals city of Yekaterinburg’s UMMC basketball team, was arrested on Feb. 17, before the war started, and charged with possession of a small quantity of hashish oil. In August, she was sentenced to 9 years in prison, an exceedingly harsh judgement even by Russian standards, which has caused speculation that the Kremlin hopes to use her in a Cold-War-style prisoner exchange with the United States.

But her ordeal has added to the wartime chill that’s already driving foreign players out of Russia.

“Obviously if one of the best basketball players is sitting in prison, it’s going to have a very discouraging effect on all foreign players who might think of signing a contract in Russia,” says Eduard Sorokin, an independent sports expert.

“All efforts to create a situation that attracts players of the highest level to Russian sports teams have been undermined, and all the benefits ruined. It’s not to say that legal violations should be overlooked. She pleaded guilty, [but] she might have just been fined and justice satisfied with minimal punishment. Now the damage is done.”

In an extensive interview with the official RIA-Novosti agency, UMMC captain Yevgenia Belyakova, who went to Moscow to testify on Ms. Griner’s behalf, praised her as a “good person” and a “disciplined” player who did not intend to break any laws. She lamented the fact that all the team’s foreign players and its Spanish coach left in February after Ms. Griner was arrested and the team was excluded from the EuroLeague Women’s competition.

“Naturally, the situation with Brittney could not but affect our legionnaires,” she said. “[We were] a big and friendly family. We not only played together, but also spent a lot of time off the court. It’s no secret that our team was formed for the Euroleague, and victory in [the championship] was our main goal of the season.”

Evgenia Novozhenina/AP
WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner (background center) listens to a verdict in a courtroom in Khimki, Russia, just outside Moscow, Aug. 4, 2022.

A similar situation pervades other sports, including hockey, where Russian teams have long been seen as a spawning ground for the NHL. The Kontinental Hockey League, which includes several non-Russian clubs, saw teams in Latvia and Finland drop out in protest of the war, and many players have followed suit.

“There are not enough qualified players to fill all Russian hockey teams; we need foreign players,” says Sergei Druzhinin, manager of the Metallurg hockey team in the Urals city of Magnitogorsk. “Right now we have no foreign players in our club. They’ve all gone. It means the level of our games, both as spectacle and professional attainment, will be dragged down.” 

Some see an opportunity

Russian soccer may be taking the worst hit of all, says Nikolai Yeremenko, editor of Sovetsky Sport, a leading sports daily. “Football [soccer] has suffered more than most other sports. The money earned by leading Russian teams in [European competition] was a serious support for club budgets. But now all the high-level foreign players have left.”

“FIFA [international soccer’s governing body] made this possible by changing the rules to allow foreign players to suspend their contracts [with Russian teams] without facing any legal consequences. As a result, teams cannot plan ahead,” he says. “A player can disappear and not face any punishment. It’s already clear that the level of Russian football has deteriorated. We can no longer compare our level with the European one.”

As of early August, 37 legionnaires had left the Russian Premier League, which includes 16 clubs, and 23 new foreign players have replaced them, according to the Moscow daily Sport Express. But most of those who have left were top-rated European players, and their replacements are lesser-known players from South America and Serbia.

“A year ago, the league was replenished with players from dozens of different countries, but now there is no such wide choice. In terms of newcomers, Brazil and Serbia are in the lead – countries that have always willingly sent footballers to Russia. The difference is that before they were one of many donors, and now they are almost the only ones,” the paper said.

Some Russians, such as Soviet-era basketball legend Stanislav Yeremin, argue that the crisis should be treated as an opportunity to develop Russian sports and forge new links with countries that will still compete with Russians.

“Look forward,” Mr. Yeremin told the Sport MK newspaper. “I don’t think that we will be in Europe for at least two or three years. Therefore, we need to turn to the Russian market, or try to look for opportunities for international competitions with those countries and clubs that could still play with us. If you close yourself in, then it will be difficult.”

Russian sports have been isolated before – excluded from international competition from the Russian Revolution in 1917 until 1952.  “There was no way to compare our level, and so we were left completely outside normal development of sports” says Mr. Yeremenko. “I don’t believe in any claims that this situation can work to our advantage. Progress is only possible when the strongest compete with the strongest. Sports can’t develop under sanctions.

“It’s very hard to say what we should do now. When you have the ideology of a besieged fortress, everything gets all mixed up.”

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