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Soccer Is the Continuation of Putin’s War By Other Means

Organizers have done their best to keep Russia and Ukraine from facing off against one another in Europe’s second-biggest soccer tournament. But they may not be able to keep them apart for much longer.

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Russia and Ukraine don’t much like each other right now — or at least, their governments don’t like each other. And — always sensitive to politics — soccer administrators have taken note: Russian and Ukrainian teams have been deliberately kept apart in both the Champions League and the Europa League, the continent’s top two competitions, after representatives from both countries “expressed concerns about safety and security.” But that may not be possible for much longer.

Soccer and politics are already intertwined in Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, has asked his allies to boycott the World Cup in Russia in 2018, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has leaned on billionaire countrymen to prop up failing clubs saddled with wage bills in foreign currencies. The need for soccer silverware — and the nationalistic boost it might offer — is particularly acute in Ukraine. It hasn’t taken home a trophy since 2009, when Shakhtar Donetsk — a team that can’t even play in its own stadium because of the ongoing conflict — claimed the country’s lone title in a European competition.

Now, two Ukrainian clubs and one Russian club have made it to the quarterfinals of the Europa League, where they are all playing opponents of a different nationality — so far, so good. The Russian team, Zenit, of St. Petersburg will take on Sevilla, while the Ukrainian teams, Dnipro (from Dnipropetrovsk, a town not far from the war-torn Donbass region) and Dynamo Kyiv, will face Club Brugge and Fiorentina, respectively. The problem is what happens next.

Let’s say all the Russian and Ukrainian teams win (though none is currently favored). Then Dnipro and Dynamo Kyiv would have to play each other, and Zenit would be left with the winner of the fourth quarterfinal, either Wolfsburg or Napoli. Already, some Russian fans might be angry. By forcing both of Ukraine’s teams to play each other, the supremos at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) may have raised the chances of a Ukrainian champion.

This possibility comes from simple math. There are three matches — the two semifinals and the final — and four ways a Ukrainian team can be crowned champion. Let’s say each Ukrainian team has a 40 percent chance of winning a given match against a non-Ukrainian team, which is similar to Dynamo’s current chances against Club Brugge. UEFA’s all-Ukrainian semifinal would place one Ukrainian team in the final, where there would be a 40 percent chance of a Ukrainian champion.

But what if Russia and Ukraine patched things up, and UEFA allowed the Ukrainian teams to play semifinals against other opponents? Then each one would have a 40 percent chance of winning in the semifinals, a 60 percent chance of facing a non-Ukrainian opponent in the final, and a 40 percent chance of winning the final — for a total probability of 9.6 percent of being crowned champion by this route. There would also be a 16 percent chance that the two Ukrainian teams would face each other in the final, guaranteeing a Ukrainian champion. Overall, that’s a 35.2 percent chance of a Ukrainian title — worse than the 40 percent chance that came when the Ukrainian teams had to play each other. In fact, Ukrainian teams will benefit from UEFA’s rule as long as the baseline chance of a Ukrainian team beating a non-Ukrainian team is less than 50 percent. Of course, there could be one more twist in this story. There’s a small chance that a Ukrainian team will face Zenit in the final. At that point, UEFA would no longer be able to keep the Russians and Ukrainians apart; they’d meet up at the National Stadium in Warsaw on May 27. Who among us would opt to be a Polish police officer on that night?

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Daniel Altman is the owner of North Yard Analytics LLC, a sports data consulting firm, and an adjunct associate professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. @altmandaniel

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