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Row erupts over Russian invite to German soccer team Schalke

Source: Reuters - Thu, 24 Apr 2014 13:48 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Gazprom invitation sparks anger from German politicians

* Club president says team 'would like to see the Kremlin'

* Spokesman says no date set, time is not right

BERLIN, April 24 (Reuters) - German politicians have criticised soccer club Schalke 04, sponsored by Russian energy giant Gazprom, for considering an invitation to Russia at a time when tensions are running high over the crisis in Ukraine.

Club president Clemens Toennies, who also owns a meat factory, told Handelsblatt daily this week that the team "would like to see the Kremlin and is interested in Moscow" but said no visit would take place before this summer's soccer World Cup.

Talk of a possible visit, including a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has caused anger in Germany.

"In the current situation, accepting an invitation to go to the Kremlin and allowing yourself to be exploited does not show much tact," Peter Tauber, General Secretary of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), told Bild daily.

Other politicians also called on Toennies to rethink any plans for a visit.

Toennies was "surprised and disappointed" at the attacks, said his spokesman, saying he was keenly aware of the sensitivities at this time.

"There was never a date fixed and it is not planned to fix a date," said the spokesman. "It is the wrong time."

The possibility of meeting Putin had been part of a long-standing invitation that had originated with sponsors Gazprom, he said.

Other conservatives also attacked Toennies, with Guenther Krichbaum, head of the parliamentary committee on Europe, saying the club was probably thinking of its economic interests.

Gazprom's sponsorship is worth about 17 million euros ($23.5 million) a season.

The row comes as concern mounts in the United States and European Union over kidnappings and killings in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militants have occupied local government buildings. The West has said it will impose wider economic sanctions if Russia does not deliver on promises to ease tensions.

Many German companies, worried about losing out if economic sanctions are imposed against Russia, are continuing business as usual with their partners. Joe Kaeser, chief executive of engineering giant Siemens, came under fire from some politicians for meeting Putin in Russia last month. ($1 = 0.7231 Euros) (Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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