BELGRADE -- As its athletes and teams continue to face bans and suspensions for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia is hoping for a respite from its growing international isolation when it hosts a soccer match in July.
Red Star Belgrade, Serbian soccer champions with a storied history, will face off against Zenit St. Petersburg, Russian league winners, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on July 3 in a friendly match billed as a "clash of champions."
Europe's soccer governing body UEFA banned Russian clubs and its national team from its competitions "until further notice," in a package of sanctions announced on May 2 in response to Russia's military aggression in Ukraine, where some 12 million people have been displaced, according to the UN, and cities bombed to rubble.
UEFA did not respond to a request from RFE/RL seeking comment on the upcoming game.
FIFA, world soccer's governing body, excluded Russia from this year's World Cup after their opponents in the qualification process pledged to boycott games.
While UEFA has canceled its lucrative sponsorship with Gazprom, the Russian energy giant still financially backs both Zenit and Red Star. Days after the invasion began on February 24, Gazprom lost its sponsorship deal with German club Schalke 04.
Red Star are one of the giants of southeast European soccer and, with Steaua Bucharest, one of two teams from that part of Europe to have won the European Cup, in the 1990-91 season.
Officials from the club did not respond to requests for comment from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
While most of Europe has imposed sanctions on Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, Belgrade has rejected such moves to punish its traditional ally. Serbia depends on Russia almost entirely for its energy supplies, and President Aleksandar Vucic has said that imposing sanctions against Moscow would be disastrous for Serbia.
If it weren't for Gazprom, the question is whether there would be a Red Star. People who love Red Star will never forget what Gazprom did for the club."-- Zvezdan Terzic, Red Star General Manager
On May 29, Vucic announced after a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country had reached "an extremely favorable" three-year gas deal with Russia.
Vucic has attempted to straddle a fine line between his hopes of moving the country into the European Union while remaining on solid footing with the Kremlin.
Serbia, an EU candidate, has shrugged off warnings from Brussels that it could "pay a price" for its refusal to impose sanctions on Russia.
Gazprom, directly or through its subsidiaries, is the majority owner of substantial energy assets in Serbia.
Since 2008, Gazprom has owned a majority stake in NIS, Serbia's national oil and gas company. The sale was political, giving Moscow the right to route a major European gas pipeline through Serbia in exchange for the Kremlin's support for Belgrade's stance on the breakaway state of Kosovo.
Gazprom also has a sponsorship deal with Red Star, financially backing them for 12 years. The company's logo is not only emblazoned across the team's jerseys but also embossed on seats at the club's Rajko Mitic Stadium in the Serbian capital.
At the time of the first sponsorship deal, worth an estimated $19 million over five years, Red Star was deeply in the red, reportedly having run up debts amounting to $25 million.
Red Star General Manager Zvezdan Terzic has said the club owes its continued survival to Gazprom.
"If it weren't for Gazprom, the question is whether there would be a Red Star. People who love Red Star will never forget what Gazprom did for the club," Terzic said.
"We do not approve of what FIFA and UEFA have done to Russian clubs. There is no basis in international law. There is anti-Russian hysteria across Europe now," Terzic was quoted as saying by Britain's Daily Mail.
His comments came ahead of a Europa League match in March against Scottish side Rangers F.C. and amid renewed calls for the Serbian side to drop Gazprom as a sponsor.
I wouldn't bet that the match takes place, unless Red Star gets some kind of confirmation from UEFA that it will not, in some way, be isolated or punished."-- Commentator Slobodan Georgiev
At the time, UEFA said it had no intention of moving to demand a change of sponsorship, stating: "It is a matter for individual clubs," as the Daily Mail reported.
In announcing the match between Red Star and Zenit, Terzic said on June 1 that the two clubs would further deepen their cooperation. "We are proud to be able to maintain good contacts with our brothers in Russia," Terzic told a news conference in Belgrade.
The Gazprom sponsorship of Red Star has also been upgraded, Terzic said, and is worth "10 million euros ($10.5 million) in total" over the next two years.
When Red Star wrapped up its latest domestic title in May, and its 33rd in the club's history, Yelena Ilyukhina, president of Zenit's board, congratulated the club.
"On behalf of Zenit, I sincerely congratulate you on the victory and fifth title in a row. I want to say 'bravo' to the fans, players, coaches, directors, and everyone connected with the club. You have entered the record books and deserve to be called Serbian champions," said Ilyukhina.
Given the controversy, some question whether the much-hyped "clash of champions" match will go ahead.
Slobodan Georgiev, a commentator and head of TV Newsmax Adria Serbia, said that the friendly match between Zvezda and Zenit "certainly would not be praised."
"It's a provocation because of the war in Ukraine," Georgiev told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I wouldn't bet that the match takes place, unless Red Star gets some kind of confirmation from UEFA that it will not, in some way, be isolated or punished."