On Monday, FIFA announced that it was indefinitely suspending Russian representative teams (men and women). (In a joint statement, UEFA announced it was removing the clubs from all competitions.) That means Russia will almost certainly not take part in the Qatar World Cup in November. The day before, FIFA had condemned “the use of force by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine”.
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In many ways, this is an unprecedented move by the game’s governing body. Here’s a Q&A to better understand the decisions and their implications.
Q: Russia were due to play in the Men’s World Cup qualifiers later this month and the Women’s Euros in July. Is there a way to roll back?
A: For men, almost certainly not. Their playoff match against Poland was scheduled for March 24; they should be reinstated by FIFA. This will only happen if they reach a peace agreement and reconcile with all those countries, including Poland, which have declared that 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 Women’s Euro is a little different in the sense that it’s in four months. You hope and pray that there is enough time for the war to end and a resolution to be found, but right now it looks like a remote possibility.
Q: Why do you call this unprecedented? Haven’t countries been suspended from FIFA before?
A: FIFA suspends members all the time. Just last week they suspended Kenya and Zimbabwe for government interference. Last year it was Chad and Pakistan for the same reasons.
This usually happens because of government interference, corruption, or financial irregularities. Sometimes it can happen for doping or sports corruption (like this famous case involving Chile in 1989). But suspending a member country 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 because of the country’s apartheid policy and insistence on fielding all-white teams. But there are key aspects that make this different.
Q: Such as?
A: First, the speed of the decision. The invasion of Ukraine began less than a week ago. More importantly, in the above two cases, FIFA acted after United Nations resolutions. In 1992, Yugoslavia was sent home following a United Nations resolution imposing sanctions for atrocities committed in Bosnia. They were replaced at the European Championships by Denmark, who would go on to win the tournament. South Africa’s ban, which will last more than four decades, came after a UN resolution in 1960 called on the government to abandon policies of apartheid and racial discrimination.
This time there was no UN Security Council resolution condemning the invasion.
Q: How come?
A: Because Russia is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and can therefore veto any decision. Thus, the resolution that was presented, demanding that Russia immediately withdraw from Ukraine, was effectively vetoed.
Q: Why is this important?
A: 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 another when you’re not and have to answer to your 211 members, some of whom might have different feelings about it than many in the West who wanted to eliminate Russia right away.
It should be recalled 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 good part of the world’s population.
Q: Is that why they didn’t suspend them on Sunday, instead issuing this somewhat tame interim statement to simply ban Russian teams from playing at home, with no anthems or flags and calling themselves “Football Union of Russia”?
A: Approximately. But here it is worth remembering what we are talking about when we talk about FIFA.
While it can sometimes feel like a monolith led by an all-powerful president like Gianni Infantino, on this occasion it’s not as if he made the decision personally. He was taken 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.
Q: Why? Because they didn’t have the “security blanket” of a UN resolution to back them up?
A: Partly yes, but also because they are all elected officials and answer to their members.
As I said, not everyone was as convinced of the Russian ban as many NATO countries. Some people think there’s a double standard at play. After all, FIFA didn’t ban the USA, UK, Australia and Poland and the rest of the ‘coalition of the willing’ when they invaded Iraq in 2003 without explicit UN authorization. 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 this mean?
A: They wanted more Member Associations to come out openly in favor of a ban, and that happened almost immediately. Poland, Russia’s first opponents in World Cup qualifiers, have said they will refuse to play against Russia. The same was true for Sweden and the Czech Republic, followed by more than a dozen others, which allowed FIFA to say that it basically had no choice: it was either to exclude Russia, or a lot of other countries.
They gained further support on Monday when the International Olympic Committee released its own statement, calling for Russia’s ban. Now the IOC is not the UN, but it is a great global organization. At this stage, the FIFA Office felt empowered to proceed from a legal point of view as well.
Q: How so?
A: Because Russia can appeal FIFA’s decision by taking their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. It is an independent body, and in the past it has gone against major sporting organisations, as it did when it overturned Manchester City’s ban for breaching Financial Fair Play.
Russia has a good record there. When the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia for four years for non-compliance, 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. FIFA therefore wanted to make its ban as legally watertight as possible.
Q: Is this ban fair to Russian athletes? They are not the ones who make war…
A: Some people think so and that’s why even when Russia was banned from the Olympics, athletes were still allowed to compete as individuals. But it is important to note that the ban concerns Russian establishments, not athletes. Russian players who compete in other countries – such as Atalanta striker Aleksei Miranchuk, who scored against Sampdoria on Monday night but did not celebrate – are free to play.
Historically, there was a feeling that sport and politics should always remain firmly separated. It dates back to the Olympic Games of ancient Greece when, according to the story, they suspended wars to participate in the Olympiads. But people have long understood that sports are great propaganda tools for governments, and the line has become blurred.
In 1973, the Soviet Union boycotted a World Cup qualifier against Chile due to human rights abuses by Augusto Pinochet’s government. 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 global boycott. A number of Western countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The list is lengthened increasingly.
More broadly, I think we have become more comfortable with our sporting institutions taking positions that in the past were seen as ‘political’ or ‘partisan’ and therefore unacceptable, that it is acts to take a knee before kickoff in the NFL, or the Premier League, or MLB moving its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to a new election law, or the NBA moving its All-Star Game out of North Carolina over 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 skies of Mexico City. That’s why it won’t be surprising if we continue to see protests against Russia and solidarity with Ukraine until peace returns – and that includes during the World Cup qualifiers and the European Championships. Women’s Europe.