FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES

Extraordinary Circumstances

Sport is in politics, and politics is in sport, and each is moved by the other. Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes football seem impossibly small and irrelevant, and yet there are football stories folded into it, created from it, spun out by the shockwaves. Most obviously: what on earth happens to all the football?
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Today, at around the time this piece will be going up, UEFA's executive committee will be in the middle of an extraordinary general meeting. The decision to move the Champions League final from St. Petersburg has already been taken, per reports; this meeting is about formalising that decision and identifying the replacement.
You'd imagine the word "Gazprom" will also come up, even if Alexander Dyukov, Russia's UEFA member and CEO of Gazprom, finds himself unable to attend the meeting. It was frankly bizarre, watching the Champions League on Tuesday and Wednesday and seeing the Gazprom adverts unrolling as usual, lighting up the football, as though the world was just proceeding in some ordinary way. And that was before the invasion began in earnest.
Following the Champions League games this week, and amid "concerns" from viewers, BT Sport stated that "As part of our UEFA contract we are obliged to show the UEFA Champions League bumpers, which are provided to us by UEFA to include in our broadcast." Today, then, we'll find out if UEFA's lawyers have managed to locate the "hey, you can tear this up if there's a war" clause in all those contracts. Things appear to have been a little simpler (or perhaps cheaper) for Schalke, who have removed the company from the front of their shirts.
UEFA are moving quickly, then, even if it remains to be seen precisely where they end up. FIFA, on the other hand are monitoring the situation. Russia are due to play Poland at the end of March in a playoff semi-final for Qatar 2022, and then if they win, one of Sweden or the Czech Republic. In theory, both games would be held in Moscow. In practice, all three of the other teams have made it clear that they will not be travelling to Russia. The Ukrainian FA, meanwhile, has called for Russia to be kicked out of all FIFA and UEFA competitions.
And it's here that the tangle of modern football reveals itself. Punishing footballers for the actions of their government feels instinctively inappropriate: one Russian international, Fyodor Smolov, has even come out against the war. But equally, football (and sport more generally) has been a prominent part of the building of Putin's Russia: the vision of Russia as a sporting nation heavily promoted at home, and the soft power and access provided by sponsorship deals throughout wider markets. Football has been enthusiastic beneficiary of Russia's desire to spend money and look good doing it. Now it has to come to terms with how shabby that looks.
Gazprom's deal with UEFA is worth a reported 40 million euros a season, and the entanglement of European football with the Russian state goes a lot further than one showpiece occasion. Their deal with Gazprom was extended just last year, until 2024, and as it stands they are partners for Euro 2024 and the next two editions of the Nations League. How keen UEFA are to start unpicking things further, we should be finding out right about now.

Barcelona Are Back?

Feels a little odd to be swinging back to actual football after that, but nevertheless, some did happen, and we should probably mark that too. In the first leg against Napoli, Barcelona were wasteful, perhaps a little distracted. But now they seem to have come to terms with the Europa League.
Worryingly for everybody else, they even seem to be enjoying it. Napoli did that thing they always do, of looking like a proper football team right up until anything important is required, and Barcelona turned up and just had a really good time. Frenkie de Jong looked, at long last, like the kind of slick midfield string-puller that Barcelona have been looking for ever since… ever since… well, ever since the man who is now coaching them went off to Qatar. And you don't have to score beautiful goals to be a great player. But it really does help.
The taste of champagne theory originated, as far as the Warm-Up can tell, with former Barcelona antagonist José Mourinho. It suggests that it is worth winning any competition possible, even one generally considered lesser than the others, because the feeling of winning, the taste of champagne, is something that a team will come to crave. This can then be carried over into the proper competitions. He was talking about the League Cup, but there's the opportunity here for Barcelona to try and repeat the trick with the continental equivalent.
Do any of the people in charge of Barcelona want to be in this competition? No. And we're betting Xavi, secretly, wouldn't mind having midweeks free. The gospel of juego de posición doesn't preach itself. But here they are and so, here they go. For one of the first times the Warm-Up can remember this season, Barcelona looked both good and relaxed about being good. It's not the quickest way out of the Europa League, winning the thing. But it is the tastiest.

Arsenal Are Back?

So to the Premier League, where Wolves achieved something very special. For more than an hour, between Wolves taking the lead and Arsenal's late winner, the fans at the Emirates were actually more annoyed by the opposition than by their own team. And that takes some doing.
But to give them their due, Wolves were incredibly annoying. We mean that as a compliment. There's an art to being an irritating football team: it requires time-wasting, sure, but that has to be backed up with a proper defensive structure and the ability to keep the ball away from dangerous areas. Arsenal were made to feel that time was being wasted by both sides: that they were doing nothing of any use when they did have the ball. Alexander Lacazette was tapping his wrist and looking at the referee in the 27th minute. That takes some doing.
However. However. Arsenal won. Mikel Arteta told his players at half-time that if they wanted to be a big team, they needed to go and win the game. And they did! Mikel Arteta brought on incredibly expensive disappointment Nicolas Pépé to win the game. And he did! And so, as the players celebrated and the fans in the stadium celebrated and the fans online tweeted "look! look, Wolves! we're celebrating!", this felt like an important moment. Arsenal had defeated not just Wolves, but a far more important and far more irritating opponent: themselves.

IN OTHER NEWS

We were going to write about Rangers dispatching Borussia Dortmund, but then BT Sport stuck up five minutes of the immediate post-match reaction from Ibrox and we realised we couldn't really compete. So, as they say, scenes.

IN THE CHANNELS

Say what you like about Gianni Infantino — well, don't, he's probably got good lawyers — but the man knows how to dodge a question. Here's Rob Harris asking Infantino about his enthusiastic admiration for Vladimir Putin, about accepting the Order of Friendship, about the 2018 World Cup coming after the annexation of Crimea, about the use of sport by political figures looking for legitimacy. By our reckoning, he manages to answer precisely none of that.

RETRO CORNER

Football is a path into the world, and a guide around it. Before the Warm-Up knew anything about most of the countries in the world, even really where they were, we knew them as places that played football: opponents in European competitions, tricky prospects in international tournaments, adventures on Championship Manager. Resonant names in the stories of those who had been watching since before we were born.
This defines everything that follows. It cannot help but define it. Whatever the world is first, it is forever, even as adulthood and greater understanding come to fill out that picture. So if a small part of your brain, yesterday, on trying to follow all the news, kept muttering to itself: Dynamo, Shakhtar, Karpaty, Metalist… you weren't alone in that. And if you spent some time on Youtube looking up highlights of this, or that, or the other, just to give yourself a break? You weren't alone in that either. Here's Dynamo Kyiv putting seven past Barcelona over two legs.

COMING UP

In Serie A, both Milan clubs are in action: AC host Udinese, then Inter travel to Genoa. In the Premier League, Norwich are off to Southampton. And Hoffenheim take on Stuttgart in the Bundesliga.
Tom Adams will be here on Monday with all the Gazprom news, and also there's a League Cup final.
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