By ROB HARRIS
UEFA will no longer host the Champions League final in St. Petersburg after Russia launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine on Thursday, The Associated Press has learned.
An extraordinary meeting of the UEFA executive committee will be held Friday to discuss the geopolitical crisis and when officials are set to confirm taking the May 28 showpiece game out of Russia, a person with knowledge of the process said on Thursday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
UEFA did publicly rebuke Russia and said it was dealing with the “situation with the utmost seriousness and urgency” while confirming the meeting for 0900 GMT on Friday.
“UEFA shares the international community’s significant concern for the security situation developing in Europe and strongly condemns the ongoing Russian military invasion in Ukraine,” the governing body said in a statement.
“We remain resolve in our solidarity with the football community in Ukraine and stand ready to extend our hand to the Ukrainian people.”
The Ukrainian soccer federation issued a statement calling for the Champions League final to be moved and for all Russian clubs and national teams to be suspended from international competitions.
As Russia’s threats toward Ukraine had grown through the week, the British government and fan groups had already called for the final not to be play in St. Petersburg, where the stadium is sponsored by Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom.
The company is also the main sponsor of Schalke, but the German second-division club said on Thursday that the Gazprom logo was being removed from its jerseys.
A senior Gazprom executive also quit the supervisory board of the Gelsenkirchen-based club after being a target of US sanctions. Matthias Warnig is CEO of the newly built but never operated Russia-to-Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline which is a multibillion-dollar project of Gazprom and European companies.
Critics said Schalke was used to popularize Gazprom in Germany as it pushed to construct the gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea, which bypassed Ukraine. Gazprom has been a sponsor since 2006 and provided the cash that fueled a run to the Champions League semifinals in 2011.
German newspaper Bild this week began covering the Gazprom logos on Schalke jerseys with “Freedom for Ukraine” to protest against Russia’s deepening military intervention in Ukraine.
UEFA’s sponsorship by Gazprom is also under scrutiny with its branding having a significant profile this week at Champions League round of 16 games.
UEFA’s leadership had held off making a call on the Champions League final venue until Russia on Thursday started to target cities and military bases in Ukraine with airstrikes and shelling as tanks and troops rolled across the border.
The International Olympic Committee said it “strongly condemns the breach of the Olympic Truce by the Russian government,” days after the end of the closing of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The truce is intended to secure safe passage for athletes during the Games and, in the long term, promote the idea of working toward world peace. It runs until the end of the Paralympics, which are due to open in Beijing on March 4.
The International Paralympic Committee condemned Russia and said it held talks with sports officials in Ukraine, which still plans to compete in Beijing and requires safe passage for its athletes.
“This is a truly horrible situation, and we are greatly concerned about our National Paralympic Committee and Para athletes from Ukraine,” IPC President Andrew Parsons said. “Our top priority right now is the safety and well-being of the Ukrainian delegation, with whom we are in regular dialogue.”
Russia’s name, flag and anthem are already barred from the March 4-13 Paralympics in Beijing over previous doping disputes. Its team is due to compete as RPC, short for Russian Paralympic Committee.
Russia has violated the Olympic Truce three times in 14 years, fighting a war with Georgia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and launching a military takeover that annexed the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics closed.
Focus is turning to Russia hosting other major sports events in the coming months.
In tennis, the men’s professional tour issued a statement announcing that the ATP Challenger tournament that was supposed to be played in Moscow next week “will not take place as scheduled,” because of “concerns over player safety and uncertainty related to international travel following the recent escalation of events between Russia and Ukraine.”
In basketball, Barcelona said its team would not fly to Russia for two games against Russian teams — Zenit St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow — on Friday and Sunday in the Euroleague. A basketball World Cup qualifier between Spain and Ukraine was played as scheduled in Spain on Thursday despite some requests by Ukrainian players to suspend the game. The entire crowd and Spanish team loudly applauded the Ukrainians before the game.
Ukrainian NBA players Alex Len of the Sacramento Kings and Svi Mykhailik of the Toronto Raptors posted a joint statement on social media, saying:
“We categorically condemn the war. Ukraine is a peaceful, sovereign state inhabited by people who want to decide their own destiny. We pray for our families, friends, relatives and all the people who are in the territory of Ukraine. We hope for an end to this terrible war as soon as possible. Dear fellow Ukrainians, hold on! Our strength is in unity! We are with you!”
In rugby, European organizers postponed Georgia’s match with Russia on Sunday in Tbilisi in the Rugby Europe Championship. The women’s game between Spain and Russia on Saturday in Madrid was still on.
FIFA was yet to comment on Russia’s scheduled hosting of a World Cup qualifying playoff semifinal against Poland on March 24 for the right to also host the winner of a meeting between Czech Republic and Sweden for a place in Qatar. The Polish, Czech and Swedish federations wrote to FIFA saying games should not be played in Russia, citing the “military escalation” and “lower safety.”
Formula One said it was “closely watching the very fluid developments” but made no further comment on whether its race in Sochi would be canceled in September. Four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel said he would not compete at the Russian Grand Prix.
“I will not go,” the German driver said. “I think it’s wrong to race in the country. I’m sorry for the innocent people that are losing their lives, that are getting killed (for) stupid reasons and a very strange and mad leadership.”
In domestic sport in Ukraine, soccer’s Ukrainian Premier League suspended operations on Thursday due to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decision to impose martial law. The league has been on a two-month winter break and was due to resume on Friday. It did not give any planned date to restart.
AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Düsseldorf, Germany contributed to this report.
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