‘There are more important things in life than football,’ said the Polish football federation as they announced their intention to boycott a crunch World Cup qualifier against Russia next month. Sweden and the Czech Republic, who meet on the same night for the right to meet the winner of that now severely at-risk tie, have also indicated their refusal to meet Russia. The English FA have made the same pledge ‘for the foreseeable future’ (potentially jeopardising the Women’s European Championship to be held in England in July); while the French association also issued a sympathetic statement.
In response, FIFA’s bureau, consisting of representatives of the six confederations, stopped short of expelling Russia but ordered the game with Poland be played at a neutral venue. Russia would play under the name of its federation with no flags or anthem, or spectators, allowed. Poland responded by stating they wouldn’t play Russia ‘no matter what the name of the team is’.
While the world’s revulsion at the actions of president Putin has been almost unanimous, and the strength of feeling behind Poland’s demand is understandable, is expelling the Russian football team from international competition just? And what would it achieve?
It is not as if the Russian football team has ever had a strong connection with the Kremlin. Putin is a sports fan – he plays ice-hockey and is an accomplished judoka – but of football, as far as anyone knows, he has only limited interest. He didn’t turn up for the FIFA ceremony that awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and attended few of its games (and looked monumentally bored at those he did). Despite fears that he would exploit the tournament for propaganda purposes, he kept a very low profile throughout. None of the Russian players seem to have spoken out in support of either him or the invasion.
There is also a distinct whiff of hypocrisy here. Let’s pause to remind ourselves where the 2022 World Cup is being held: Qatar. Nearly 6,500 foreign workers are alleged to have died in the broiling desert heat building the stadia Poland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and England are seemingly happy to play in. Every country that has participated in the qualifying tournament has agreed to hold their nose on Qatar. It’s a bit rich to take a selective moral stance now.
FIFA’s compromise solution is weak and something of a curate’s egg. Its decision mimics the IOC’s adoption of the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that Russian athletes at the last two Olympics had to compete under the ROC (Russian Olympic Committee) banner after a doping scandal. But there is a clear difference between the IOC’s situation and FIFA’s. The Russian government had instigated a sophisticated and long-planned doping operation involving many athletes. The Russian football association and its footballers, never mind the fans, have not been accused of anything. So what exactly are they being punished for? Being Russian?
On the other hand, going ahead with the fixture on neutral territory would at least recognise the strength of feeling over this issue. It would also ensure the integrity of the qualifying tournament and respect the efforts of the players and dedication of the fans of all the teams involved. And if the Polish/Swedish or Czech Republic’s support wished to mark the occasion of a game against ‘Russia’ with a show of solidarity for Ukrainians, there would be nothing to stop them doing so.
But it is far from clear that this is what will happen. Poland seems in no mood to play ball. FIFA has left the door open by stating that ‘additional measures’ could yet be applied ‘including a potential exclusion from competitions…should the situation not be improving rapidly’ and have indicated that they are open to further discussion. But short of a sudden ceasefire, the game looks unlikely to go ahead. FIFA may be faced with the choice of expelling Russia, or all the teams that refuse to play her. The latter option seems unthinkable.
But expelling Russia from the World Cup would achieve nothing and perhaps make things worse. It would effectively represent FIFA acquiescing to a demand that the federation take a political position. It would be a position many agree with, yet it would set a dangerous precedent for teams demanding expulsions in the future.
The calls for sporting boycotts are of a piece with sweeping and, at times, ugly Russophobia that has emerged since the invasion of Ukraine. Tom Tugendhat MP has even suggested expelling all Russians; others have called for the removal of innocent Russian children from posh English boarding schools.
This is dangerous stuff. Banning Russia from playing football is fundamentally unjust. To make matters worse, if a feeling of wounded pride and the perception of being targeted is to be admitted as a possible contributory cause of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, sanctions that assign pariah status to the nation as a whole are hardly likely to help his mood.
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