Russia finds friends. Iran and Iraq play friendlies as team preps for Central Asian Championship

March 27 – They may be still banned from FIFA and UEFA tournaments because of the invasion of Ukraine but Russia has nevertheless managed to manoeuvre its way back into international football.

Back-to-back games against Iran and Iraq over the past few days have given the Russians something to crow about though the friendly encounters generated little or no interest to the outside world from a footballing standpoint.

Last Thursday, the Russians were hosted by long-term political ally Iran in a game that finished 1-1 in Tehran. Three days later, Russia beat Iraq 2-0 in St Petersburg, their first home game since November 2021.

The turnout on Sunday, just as Ukraine were playing a European Championship qualifier against England at Wembley, hardly suggested a passionate appetite to see the ostracised national team.

Official attendance at the 68,000-seater Gazprom Arena was put at 23,818. The stadium had been due to host last year’s Champions League final before Russia was stripped of hosting rights.

Apart from two recent fixtures, Russia’s men have played just three other matches since the invasion of Ukraine. All three have been away from home, winning 2-1 in Kyrgyzstan last September, before draws against Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The Russian Football Union (RFU) is still considering switching from UEFA to the 47-nation Asian Football Confederation and has  already signed up to play in the inaugural Central Asian Championship in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan this summer.

Meanwhile the Iraqi Football Association has called for the boycott of Russia to be lifted.

“Iraq wants to break the barrier against the Russian team, because Russia occupies an important position in the world,” IFA spokesman Yusuf Faal told Russia’s RIA news agency. “Playing with the Russian team in the country itself has not only a sporting component, it is a message that football unites, and is not a field for boycotts or isolating Russia.”

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