Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s interview with Match TV, Moscow, December 27, 2020
Question: Mr Lavrov, thank you for giving this interview to the Match TV sports channel. We looked forward to talking with you as a representative of the country and a fan of FC Spartak Moscow. You once said: “To me, Spartak is more than a team; it’s something that helps me balance my mind even during the most challenging talks.” Does this mean that you had problems with that recently?
Sergey Lavrov: I wouldn’t say so. There is a combination of the quality and result of the game, which do not always coincide. It often depends on good luck, which is not bad either.
Question: What feelings do the current developments with the team evoke in you as a Spartak fan: anger, a smile or puzzlement?
Sergey Lavrov: We have always been Spartak fans. The team has swung back and forth. I don’t remember any other team, with the exception of Dynamo, that went from premier league to second division. But this is part of the Spartak phenomenon. Its fans never stop rooting for the team. It has a special inner energy. Even when Spartak plays atrociously, you continue rooting for it.
Question: Do you understand the inner goings-on in the team?
Sergey Lavrov: No, and I don’t want to know.
Question: Why not?
Sergey Lavrov: I am interested in the game, not in what takes place within the team.
Question: You have probably heard that Domenico Tedesco said after losing to Zenit that he would not renew his contract with Spartak. How did you take this? Is this an attempt to leave ahead of time or to put pressure?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t want to speculate. This is a deeply personal matter, and as such it doesn’t depend on relations with the management, club owners and the team.
Question: Is there a logical explanation why Russian teams played so badly in the European championships this season?
Sergey Lavrov: There is probably some logic to it. There have been many analytical reviews and articles on your channel and at Sport Express and Sovetsky Sport about differences between Russian and European football and why our teams play badly in European championships. One of the main differences is the number of matches played. Our teams usually play once a week, with the exception of those that make it to European championships, which only last several months a year. During the rest of the season they play once a week. The standard for the English Premier League, Spain, Italy and Germany is two matches a week. No wonder that their shape, physical fitness and hence their speed are different.
I have read a great deal about possible reforms of the Russian championships. Leonid Fedun put forth his proposals, and there were ideas about increasing the number of Premier League teams to 18, splitting 16 in two or removing two more teams. I am sure that something must be done. The frequency and regularly of playing has a direct effect on the players’ speed, endurance and ability to quickly choose the best combinations instead of kicking the ball around the field hoping for an opportunity to cross the ball or that a target man would use a header to score a goal.
No offence, but I think the autumn-spring system is not for us. We play football on dirty and wet fields, missing the best three months of the year. We used to do quite well with the spring-autumn system in Soviet times. The transition to the new system several years ago was explained by the need to create maximally comfortable conditions for the teams playing in European championships, so as to reduce the time between winning the trophy and the European championship. You know the result.
Question: Do you think a limit on the number of international players is a bad decision?
Sergey Lavrov: No, I don’t think so. We must have a degree of protection in Russian football. It’s another thing that this matter should be addressed in combination with remuneration. I am not an expert on this, but I have heard many people, including my foreign colleagues, say that the players who accept our contracts are lured by the high pay. They probably do not mean the top players, the team leaders. But the logic definitely applies to medium class players. If we continue doing this, it will be one of the reasons why our players do not have enough opportunities to improve their skills.
Question: Do you think a time will come when football clubs will become fully privately financed? Hardly any foreign teams are financed by the state or regional authorities.
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t know much about this. But it is a fact that our clubs will not survive without subsidies. Leonid Fedun proposed making Spartak a “public team” [whose largest shareholder will be the fans]. The same idea had been advanced long before that by Pyotr Aven, also a Spartak fan. I would be happy if Spartak fans became the direct co-owners of the team using a democratic procedure to choose the team’s management.
Question: A very unusual incident happened at the end of this year when Spartak played against Sochi. When Domenico Tedesco and Dmitry Borodin got into a fight, the issue of racism was raised. I think the correct term here is xenophobia. Do you think it exists in Russian football? What was your reaction to the incident?
Sergey Lavrov: I am against any kind of name-calling, regardless of reasons. It is my professional duty to defend this principle. But outside of work as well, I am an absolutely tolerant person as I grew up in a multi-ethnic environment. When I was a student, I dealt with representatives of all ethnicities. Nobody ever singled out anybody or accused anybody of anything.
But speaking about official affairs, there are laws such as the law On Countering Extremist Activity and the law On Physical Fitness and Sports, which prohibit any kind of xenophobia against athletes and among athletes.
Every year in the United Nations, we promote a resolution that wins an overwhelming majority of votes (only the United States and Ukraine vote against it). The resolution concerns combating re-emergence of Nazism in any forms, neo-Nazism, xenophobia, racism, racial intolerance and any other forms of intolerance based on ethnic origin, skin colour, etc. These are important issues.
Concurrently, the UN adopts a noteworthy resolution, Sport as a Means to Promote Education, Health, Development and Peace. The resolution states that the way to a healthier and happier life lies through developing sports and Olympic ideals. It also stresses that any kind of xenophobia and discrimination are unacceptable.
As concerns this specific incident in Sochi, if what was said means “you are not at home so do as we tell you,” this is not how Russians treat guests. Even if you agree with the logic that in somebody else’s home one should behave as they are told to behave. But he is not a guest; he is an invited expert who works in Russia. Regardless of attitude towards his views about sports, I believe it is important to be tolerant.
Question: Do you have an opinion on who should be a Spartak coach, a foreigner or a Russian?
Sergey Lavrov: I have always said it should be a Russian.
Question: Is there a candidate you support?
Sergey Lavrov: I don’t want to say. We already discussed this once.
Question: The decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport regarding Russia. Two years must be the lesser of two evils, what do you think?
Sergey Lavrov: Probably. Two years is less than four. If I understand it correctly, the permission to wear national symbols on sports uniforms is also more liberal than what it was like four years ago, during the previous Winter Olympics. Regulating spectators’ conduct, permission to carry national flags and national symbols is also what makes this decision different from the past.
The provision banning heads of respective states from attending sports competitions is odd and, I think, unacceptable. Even though there is an exception for cases when the head of state or the head of government of a host country sends a personal invitation.
I am strongly against doping per se. It is destructive to one’s health. But there are aspects of the international movement for clean sport that should be eliminated. We have worked with WADA for a long time. At some point, we underestimated the importance of active work within this body. I think the crisis involving RUSADA is finally over. I hope that after the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, we will all draw the right conclusions.
The most important thing about this decision is there will be no collective liability. Clean athletes will not have to apply for special invitations from the International Olympic Committee like they had to for the previous Winter Olympics. If you are clean and have no doping history or if your disqualification has expired, you do not need any invitations and you have every right to be qualified for the national team to compete in the Olympic Games, according to a decision of your federation.
However, there is a need for reforms at WADA. I remember Maria Sharapova’s meldonium story. Meldonium is an over-the-counter drug. This and similar problems need to be resolved one way or another.
I criticise WADA for imposing inexplicable and clearly discriminatory restrictions but, at the same time, WADA is believed to not be tough enough on Russia. CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency Travis Tygart already came down on WADA with strong allegations claiming that WADA is exculpating Russia and the agency needs to be reformed. He also warned that, on the basis of the infamous Rodchenkov Act, the United States is creating its own system that will operate and sideline WADA from global sport discussions concerning measures against doping. If this system does get launched it will be a shame for the entire sport industry. Even though WADA is not perfect and 90 percent of its executive committee represent NATO countries or the alliance’s closest allies.
Question: So you believe there is a political side to it?
Sergey Lavrov: This does not mean anything, of course. When they say that sport in NATO countries is much better developed and the anti-doping line of action there is also better this implies discrimination against everybody else. I have no doubt that it is possible to ensure that the committee’s composition is professional and at the same time politically and geographically balanced. This composition would be accepted by everybody. However, WADA’s current senior management is trying to fix this lack of balance. We must protect WADA from the attempt to privatise this area of international relations, too. The Americans simply want to privatise it.
Question: What else should we do to be seen as a great sports power? Russian sport now has a bleak reputation abroad.
Sergey Lavrov: Its reputation is bleak because the existing cases of doping in sport have been exaggerated to overshadow the equally obvious violations in Germany or the United States. As you know, drug tests are not taken in their professional sports leagues. Sometimes they make much of very little, as it happened to biathlete Alexander Loginov at the world championships in Austria. Armed police searched his room at 6 in the morning, also waking up his coach. They offered their apologies when they had not found any banned substances. But we should take a sober approach to what the international public and sports media think of similar events taking place in our country and in their own countries, and not only in sports. There are many things in politics and the economy where they take a prejudiced approach from the position of double standards. I know for sure that in addition to obvious violations by Russian athletes, Western sports bureaucrats are encouraged to exaggerate our role in doping scandals while glossing over similar cases in the West. I am tired of recounting the shop-worn case of the “asthmatic” Norwegian and other Scandinavian teams. As for the reputation of our sports, I don’t think it has been tarnished. Russia is still a great sports power. I have no doubt about that. Our athletes are appreciated and respected. The recent decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport was largely, if not mostly, based on the awareness of the nosediving quality of international competitions. Their audience appeal would plummet if such a great sports power as Russia does not take part in them. They have mentioned advertisers. The appeal for fans will be quite different. Expectations of an exciting confrontation in Russia’s games against American, Canadian, Scandinavian teams (if we are speaking about winter sports) or against Germany are a powerful lure. This is what attracts the audience. As we have seen during the European football championship, empty stadiums and games that are played without an audience give a completely different impression.
We have many foreign players in hockey, football, basketball and volleyball. I believe this trend should be encouraged. You have mentioned foreign players. They are a fact of life, a worldwide trend. We cannot close the national border to it. However, a great sports power must give serious attention to training young athletes, to sports schools and academies. When I was a boy, everyone dreamed of joining a youth football school. The next step was the Spartak Academy. I admire the FC Krasnodar Academy. I have been there. [FC Krasnodar founder and owner] Sergey Galitsky took me on a tour. It is a huge achievement of our football when it comes to creating a basis for the development of football, not to mention the most advanced and user friendly stadium, including a screen with replay function.
There is a thing called sports diplomacy. We want to protect our interests together with the sports federations and the Olympic Committee, defend our athletes from discrimination and at the same time promote a positive and objective view of Russian sports.
Question: What exactly does this mean? Can you explain, please?
Sergey Lavrov: During the FIFA World Cup we had an Ambassador at Large who provided information about the opportunities we offered to fans through our embassies abroad. I believe that it was thanks to the detailed and regular information that so many foreign fans came to Russia.
In late November, Sports Ministry officials had a meeting with African ambassadors organised with our assistance. During last year’s Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, we established the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, which includes sports dialogue. It is interesting to listen to athletes from a continent whose athletes take part in various European championships. We have a special Ambassador at Large who will work in close contact with the Ministry of Sport and sports federations to coordinate a positive presentation of our athletes on the international stage.
Question: Do you think we are reliably protected, considering WADA’s stand and what Vyacheslav Fetisov has said about three sports ministers and two chairs of the National Olympic Committee who failed to develop a dialogue? Do you think the situation has changed?
Sergey Lavrov: Vyacheslav Fetisov is a good friend of mine. I will have a few words with him later.
Question: Andrey Arshavin has said that we won’t win the European cup for 50 years. Do you agree?
Sergey Lavrov: He knows better; he scored four goals during one match in Britain.
Question: Will we really have to wait 50 years?
Sergey Lavrov: I can’t see so far into the future. Our task is to hold talks with a certain number of countries during the year.
Question: I know that you play football. Do you still do it?
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, I play the ball on Sundays.
Question: Why don’t you skate?
Sergey Lavrov: I did, in the past. Incidentally, I started as a hockey player, back when I lived in a village near Noginsk outside Moscow. There was a Spartak stadium there, which is why I am a Spartak fan. Our team was called Golden Puck. We tied skating blades to our felt boots. Very few of us had real skates. But this didn’t stop us. I continued playing hockey when I was studying at MGIMO, during the first two years there. We had a combined team with the Foreign Trade Ministry, or more precisely, there were several ministry guys on our team. Not many wanted to play hockey. We were in the so-called “10th division” in Moscow. I stopped playing when I developed short-sightedness, and we didn’t have contact lenses then. I could hardly see the puck. I would have continued playing if we had modern conditions. But then, I am locked on football.
Question: And canoe slalom?
Sergey Lavrov: Not so much canoe slalom as rafting. I am president of the Russian Whitewater Slalom Federation. We are talking mostly about navigating kayak or canoe boats on river rapids. Personally, I’ve been rafting for years, not sport but tourist rafting in the Altai and the Urals.