By Dmitriy Rogovitskiy
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Crimea, caught in a sporting limbo after Russia annexed it from Ukraine, is to field a national soccer team in a tournament it plans to host next year, but its only likely opponents are statelets without international recognition.
Before the 2014 annexation, Crimea's clubs competed in the Ukrainian league and its players, if they were good enough, turned out for Ukraine's national team. It has since pulled out of Ukrainian competition but is barred by international soccer rules from coming under the jurisdiction of Russian football.
That left Crimea's players with no one to play but each other. So on Monday, the Crimean Football Union (CFU) announced on its website the creation of its own national team. ( www.cfu2015.com )
CFU president Yuri Vetokha said Crimea could not play official matches, and talks were only taking place about exhibition and friendly games. The first two matches are planned to take place in March, as part of a four-team tournament, according to the Crimean union. Spokeswoman Olga Bezuglovets said it was not yet known which teams would take part.
Vetokha has previously said Crimea could play a friendly against Abkhazia, a region that seceded from ex-Soviet Georgia in the 1990s and which is recognized by Russia but not by the vast majority of countries around the world. "In the near future, I will meet with representatives from UEFA in order to agree with holding this event," Vetokha told Russia's TASS news agency, referring to the governing body of European soccer. "We want to get the go-ahead from UEFA in order that the national teams that will be traveling to take part in the tournament will not have any problems," he added.
UEFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, it only accepts requests for membership from countries which are recognized as being independent by a substantial number of nations.
Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, was only accepted as a UEFA member earlier this year after a long campaign during which it faced fierce opposition from Belgrade.
The Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU), under whose jurisdiction Crimean soccer still operates in the eyes of soccer's international governing bodies, was not immediately available for comment.
Russia's soccer authorities, wary of possible repercussions if Crimea falls foul of the governing bodies, were cautious about the Crimean initiative.
"Of course they have every right to meet and train and even play against their teams from Crimea," the honorary president of the Russian Football Union, Vyacheslav Koloskov, told the R-Sport agency.
"However, they cannot play official or even friendly matches as they are not an independent federation."
(Additional reporting by Brian Homewood; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)