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Schalke chief plays down Putin worries

Schalke chairman Clemens Toennies has iterated that he has a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, amid the controversy surrounding the club’s partnership with Gazprom.

Clemens Toennies and Vladimir Putin hold up a Schalke shirt in Dresden in 2006.
Clemens Toennies shares a friendship with Vladimir Putin.

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The Royal Blues are tied to Russia thanks to their sponsorship deal with the gas giants -- a company in which the Russian government has a majority stake.

Gazprom, also one of the main sponsors of the Champions League, has worked with Schalke since 2008 and has a contract with the club running until 2017.

In the wake of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, which has seen Russia heavily criticised by both the European Union and the United States, Schalke’s partnership with Gazprom has come under fire in Germany in recent weeks.

Ahead of the upcoming European Parliament election in May, some politicians have put the sponsorship deal on their agenda.

“While [opposition leader] Vitali Klitschko is fighting for political stability and the economic survival of Ukraine, Gazprom makes prices spiral and demands one of the highest prices for gas in all of Europe from Kiev,” Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the main candidate for the Free Democratic Party, told Express on Sunday.

“At the same time the Royal Blues sport the logo of the energy highwayman in the Bundesliga. Vladimir Putin slaps his thighs laughing. Schalke 04 are a proud football club with huge history. It is about time that they remember their democratic foundation and start looking for a new sponsor.”

But speaking to Bild on Monday, Toennies said he does not believe that Schalke’s relationship with Gazprom is anything to worry about.

“I don’t see a problem,” he said. “To me, this is totally unobjectionable. Gazprom is a strong and reliable partner, and the well-being of Schalke 04 lies at their heart. Both sides are very pleased.”

Earlier this month, Schalke came under pressure from their own fans, who have also been concerned by the ties between Toennies and Putin.

Toennies -- an owner of a mutli-billion euro meat factory who recently invested a reported 600 million euros in the company’s production facilities in Russia -- boasted about his relationship with Putin when returning from his latest trip to Russia.

And in late February, he told Sport Bild about Putin’s invitation to the club to visit him in Russia.

However, Schalke sporting director Horst Heldt said that the club “have no travelling plans” to take up Putin’s offer.

Speaking to Bild, though, Toennies urged everyone to keep “sport out of world politics” and said that while the “Russian separation of Crimea has been a mistake from the German standpoint,” he still regards Putin as a friend.

Toennies added: “I am no world politician. But we rejoice over meeting each other. And he asks about Schalke. We have a good relationship, and I adhere to it.”

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