Russia’s national team and soccer clubs have been banned from UEFA’s competitions for next season, including the Champions League and Europa League.
This has led to speculation that Russia might leave European soccer and join the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) instead.
The deputy head of the Russian parliament’s sport committee was quoted by Russian media as saying “I think the time has come to think seriously about a switch to the Asian football confederation.”
But such a move wouldn’t be so simple, with many reasons why Asia might not want Russia to join, and other reasons why Russia might not want to join Asia.
Politically, while opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not been as strong in Asia as it has been in Europe, far more AFC member countries voted at the United Nations to condemn Russia than abstained or voted to reject the resolution. While reluctant to impose sanctions or send weapons to Kyiv, some Asian countries have sent the Ukrainian military other “non-lethal” types of support. With the impact of the invasion on the cost of living in Asia through higher fuel and crop prices, opposition to Moscow’s actions is only likely to get stronger.
Politics aside, there are also economic, sporting and geographic reasons why Asia might not be so keen on Russia joining.
Countries have switched confederations before. Notably, Australia switched from Oceania to Asia in 2006, with the then-head of the AFC Mohamed Bin Hamman saying at the time that Australia “has world football standards and is an economic power”. Australia had been trying to join the AFC for decades before though, and had failed with several previous bids.
It could be argued that Russia will bring increased sponsorship, like how Gazprom sponsored the UEFA Champions League. But there are already plenty of major sponsors and potential sponsors in Asia, from Korean and Japanese conglomerates to the state-backed sponsors of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They could put in far more money into Asian soccer if they wanted to, but there are few political or commercial benefits of spending more than they do now. Gazprom sponsored the Champions League for political reasons, mainly to do with its pipelines to Germany and central Europe, but there is not likely to be the political will to sponsor Asian soccer to anywhere near the same amount.
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Australia’s arrival didn’t see the AFC get any extra World Cup spots, which meant other Asian nations missed out in 2006 and 2010. Asia’s 2022 World Cup spots have already been decided, so Russia couldn’t use the confederation as a backdoor to Qatar 2022, but it would find it easier to qualify for the 2026 World Cup.
With Asia getting eight spots in that tournament, many countries see 2026 as a chance to reach the World Cup finals for the first time in years, or in some cases the first time ever. They are unlikely to want to lower those chances by risking Russia take one of the spots.
While Russia would likely be among the top teams in Asia, it isn’t strong enough to significantly raise the level of Asian soccer. The 2018 World Cup was the only time since the breakup of the Soviet Union that Russia has got past the group stages of the competition, and Russia has a worse World Cup record over that time period than South Korea and Japan.
Russian club teams like Zenit Saint Petersburg are currently a lot stronger than Asian club sides, but that is largely due to the quality of their foreign players, and without UEFA Champions League soccer, Russian clubs might find it difficult to bring in such talent. AFC rules also limit the number of foreign players in each team, so even if Zenit held onto all its foreign players, it would be only be able to field a few of them in AFC Champions League matches.
Clubs like Zenit or Spartak Moscow would still improve the quality of the Asian Champions League, which had seemed to be on the rise before Covid-19 stopped it in its tracks. Asia’s largest club tournament has been played at centralized venues over the past couple of seasons, making it hard for the tournament to connect with fans.
Some of the teams from Asia’s top nations have been accused of devaluing the competition in the past by sending weaker teams, and the pandemic has seen sides from Australia and China either pull out of the competition or send youth sides. The addition of Russian teams to the mix might add some prestige, but won’t solve any of the competition’s fundamental problems.
One of those problems is Asia’s vast size. The Asian Champions League already has to split itself into eastern and western zones with the top teams from each zone meeting in the final. And even then, the distances in each zone are far greater than what European sides have to travel for the Champions League. Adding the largest country in the world into the mix would only make this worse, especially as all of Russia’s best clubs are based in the part of the country furthest from Asia.
If Russia were to join the AFC Asian Champions League, it would presumably be put in the western half of the competition, along with nations like Iran and the United Arab Emirates, rather than Australia or Japan, so only a few Asian clubs would ever end up playing Russian opposition anyway.
There are also strong reasons why Russia might not want to join the AFC.
Russia might benefit from a better chance of reaching the World Cup, but if there’s no change in the political situation in the next four years, then it could find Western teams refusing to play against it at the 2026 World Cup anyway.
Alternatively, if Russian clubs were to be allowed to play in Europe in 2023 or 2024, then they wouldn’t want to be tied to Asia. They would much rather the wealth and glamour of UEFA’s competitions. But the AFC is hardly going to want to let Russia join for a few years for it just to rejoin UEFA, as that would likely damage, rather than improve, the image of Asian soccer.
For Russia to join the AFC, it would have to be all in, which is unlikely. The head of Russia’s soccer federation said he is against a move as it would be “the death of Russian football” and that it would mean Russia “would never return to the European family”.
A more likely outcome in the short term is that Russia will look to play friendly matches against countries that are willing to play against its national team and club teams. It might look to either create its own international tournaments or be a guest nation in other confederation’s tournaments like how Qatar recently played friendly matches during UEFA’s World Cup qualifying stage and took part in South America’s Copa America in 2019.