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On Monday, FIFA announced that it would indefinitely suspend Russia’s representative teams (men’s and women’s). (In a joint statement, UEFA announced that it would remove the clubs from all competitions.) this means that russia will almost certainly not participate in the world cup in qatar in november. the day before, fifa had condemned the “use of force by russia in its invasion of ukraine”.
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Reading: Russia banned from world cup
In many ways, this is an unprecedented move by the game’s governing body. here is a question and answer session to better understand the decisions and their implications.
Q: Russia was due to play in the men’s world cup playoffs later this month and the women’s euro in July. Is there any way to go back?
a: For men, almost certainly not. their playoff match against Poland was scheduled for March 24; they would have to be reinstated by fifa. that will not happen unless they come to a peace agreement and reconcile with all those countries, including poland, that have said they will boycott any match against them. (The World Cup draw to determine the eight groups is scheduled for April 1 in Doha, Qatar).
the female euro is a bit different in the sense that there are four months to go. You hope and pray that there will be enough time for the war to end and a resolution to be reached, but right now it seems like a long shot.
q: why do you call this unprecedented? Haven’t FIFA countries been suspended before?
r: fifa suspends members all the time. just last week, kenya and zimbabwe were suspended by government inference. last year, it was chad and pakistan for the same reasons.
It usually happens due to government interference, corruption or financial irregularities. Sometimes it can pass for doping or sports corruption (like this famous case involving Chile in 1989). but suspending a member nation for political reasons is very rare. it happened to yugoslavia in 1992 at the height of the civil war and to south africa in 1961 due to the country’s apartheid policy and insistence on fielding all-white teams. but there are key aspects that make it different.
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q: why does this matter?
r: fifa is a sports organization, not a political one. It’s one thing to ban a country for political reasons when you’re backed by the UN. It’s quite another when you’re not and you have to answer to your 211 members, some of whom may feel differently about it than many Westerners who wanted Russia gone immediately.
it is worth remembering that while russia was the only one of the 15 members of the security council to vote against the resolution, three others abstained: india, china and the united arab emirates. that’s a sizable portion of the world’s population.
q: Is that why they didn’t get suspended on Sunday, but instead issued that somewhat meek interim statement to simply ban Russian teams from playing on their home turf, without anthem or flags and calling themselves “russian football union”?
a: enough. but here, it is worth remembering what we are talking about when we talk about fifa.
While at times it may seem like a monolith led by an all-powerful president like Gianni Infantino, this time it’s not as if he made the decision personally. it was taken over by something called the fifa office, which is a fancy way of saying a zoom meeting between infantino and the presidents of the six confederations: uefa, conmebol, concacaf, afc, caf and ofc.
some of those present wanted to suspend russia immediately, adding a conditional roadmap for readmission, such as withdrawal from ukraine and a peace agreement. others were more cautious.
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q: why? because they didn’t have the “security blanket” of a u.n. resolution to back them up?
a: Partly yes, but also because these are all elected officials and answerable to their members.
Like I said, not everyone was as convinced to ban Russia as many NATO countries. some people feel that there are double standards at play. After all, FIFA did not ban the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland and the rest of the “Coalition of the Willing” when they invaded Iraq in 2003 without explicit authorization from the U.N. nor did they sanction saudi arabia when they bombed yemen in 2015.
fifa and the confederations wanted to make sure they had enough public support. and most likely they knew they were going to get it, but they had to go through a process.
q: what does that mean?
a: They wanted more member associations to speak out in support of the ban, and that happened almost immediately. poland, russia’s first opponent in the world cup playoffs, said they would refuse to play russia. so did sweden and the czech republic, followed by more than a dozen others, allowing fifa to say they basically had no choice: either exclude russia or a host of other countries.
garnered further support on Monday when the international olympic committee issued its own statement, calling for russia to be banned. Now, the IOC is not the UN, but it is an important world organization. at that time, the fifa office felt empowered to proceed from a legal perspective as well.
q: how is that?
a: because russia can appeal fifa’s decision by taking their case to the sports arbitration court. It is an independent body and has in the past gone against major sporting organisations, as it did when it overturned Manchester City’s ban for breaching financial fair play.
Russia has a good track record there. When the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia for four years for not complying with the rules, the CAS reduced it to two years. And last month, at the Winter Olympics, he upheld Russia’s decision to lift figure skater Kamila Valieva’s provisional suspension. Therefore, FIFA wanted the ban on her to be as strict as possible from a legal point of view.
Q: Is this ban fair to Russian athletes? They are not the ones who wage war…
a: some people feel that way and that is why, even when russia was banned from participating in the olympics, athletes were still allowed to compete as individuals. but it is important to note that the ban is for Russian institutions, not athletes. Russian players competing in other countries, such as Atalanta striker Aleksei Miranchuk, who scored Monday night against Sampdoria but did not celebrate, are free to play.
Historically, there was a feeling that sports and politics should always remain firmly separate. This dates back to the Olympics in ancient Greece when, as the story goes, they actually called off wars to compete in the Olympics. But people discovered a long time ago that sports are excellent propaganda tools for governments, and the line has become blurred.
In 1973, the Soviet Union boycotted a World Cup qualifying match against Chile due to human rights violations by the government of Augusto Pinochet. In 1976, 28 African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympics after the IOC refused to expel New Zealand, whose rugby team had toured South Africa in violation of a worldwide boycott. Several Western countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. the list goes on and on.
More generally, I think we have become more comfortable with our sporting institutions assuming positions that in the past were considered “political” or “taking sides” and therefore unacceptable, whether it be kneeling before kick-off of the nfl, or the premier league, or mlb moving its all-star game out of georgia in response to a new voting law, or the nba moving its all-star game out of north carolina because of its objection to a law that limits anti-discrimination protections for lgbt people in the state.
We’ve come a long way since 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics for having the temerity to raise their black-gloved fists into the sky over Mexico City. so it will not be surprising if we continue to see anti-russian protests and solidarity with ukraine until peace returns, and that includes during the world cup qualifying playoffs and women’s european championships.