On Monday, FIFA announced that it was indefinitely suspending Russian representative teams (men’s and women’s). (In a joint statement, UEFA announced they were removing club sides from all competitions.) This means Russia will almost certainly not be participating in the Qatar World Cup in November. The previous day, FIFA had condemned the “use of force by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.”
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 its implications.
Q: Russia were due to play in the men’s World Cup playoffs later this month and the women’s Euros in July. Is there any way back?
A: For the men, almost certainly not. Their playoff game against Poland was scheduled for March 24; they would need to be reinstated by FIFA. That won’t happen unless they reach a peace deal and reconcile with all those countries, including Poland, who have said they’ll 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 Euros is a bit different in the sense that it’s four months away. You hope and pray there’s enough time for the war to end and a resolution to be reached, but right now, it feels like a remote possibility.
Q: Why do you call this unprecedented? Haven’t countries been suspended from FIFA before?
Usually it happens because of government interference, corruption or financial irregularities. Sometimes it can happen for doping or sporting corruption (like this famous case involving Chile in 1989). But to suspend 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 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 off, the speed of the decision. The invasion of Ukraine began less than a week ago. More significantly, in both the above cases, FIFA acted after resolutions from the United Nations. In 1992, Yugoslavia was sent home the day after a United Nations resolution imposing sanctions for atrocities committed in Bosnia. They were replaced in the European Championships by Denmark, who would go on to win the tournament. South Africa’s ban, which would last more than four decades, came after a U.N. resolution in 1960 calling on the government to abandon policies of apartheid and racial discrimination.
This time, there has been no United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the invasion.
Q: How come?
A: Because Russia is one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and therefore can veto any decision. So the resolution that was introduced, demanding that Russia withdraw immediately from Ukraine, was effectively vetoed.
Q: Why does this matter?
A: FIFA is a sporting organisation, not a political one. It’s one thing to ban a country for political reasons when you’re backed by the U.N. It’s quite another when you’re not and you have to answer to your 211 members, some of whom might feel differently about it than many of those in the West who wanted Russia out straightaway.
It’s worth remembering that while Russia was the only one of the 15 Security Council members to vote against the resolution, another three abstained: India, China and the United Arab Emirates. That’s a sizable chunk of the world’s population right there.
Q: Is that why they didn’t suspend them on Sunday, instead issuing that somewhat tame provisional statement to simply ban Russian teams from playing on home soil, without an anthem or flags and calling themselves “Football Union of Russia”?
A: Pretty much. But here, it’s worth remembering what we’re talking about when we talk about FIFA.
While it can seem at times like a monolith run by an all-powerful president like Gianni Infantino, on this occasion it’s not as if he made the decision personally. It was taken by something called the FIFA Bureau, 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 straightaway, adding a conditional road map for readmission, like withdrawal from Ukraine and a peace deal. Others were more cautious.
Q: Why? Because they didn’t have the “safety blanket” of a U.N. resolution to back them up?
A: Partly yes, but also because these are all elected officials and they answer to their members.
Like I said, not everybody felt as strongly about banning Russia as many NATO countries do. Some folks feel that there’s a double standard at play. After all, FIFA didn’t ban the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Poland and the rest of the “coalition of the willing” when they invaded Iraq in 2003 without an explicit authorisation 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 come out in the open in support of a ban, and that happened almost immediately. Poland — Russia’s first opponents in the World Cup playoffs — said they would refuse to play against Russia. So too did Sweden and the Czech Republic, followed by more than a dozen others, which enabled FIFA to say they basically had no choice: It was either exclude Russia or a bunch of other countries.
They got further support on Monday when the International Olympic Committee issued its own statement, requesting that Russia be banned. Now, the IOC isn’t the U.N., but it’s a major global organisation. At that point, the FIFA Bureau felt empowered to proceed from a legal perspective 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’s an independent body, and in the past, it has gone against major sporting organizations, like it did when it overturned Manchester City’s ban for violating Financial Fair Play.
Russia have a good record there. When the World Anti-Doping Agency banned Russia for four years for failing to comply with regulations, CAS reduced it to two years. And just last month, at the Winter Olympics, it upheld Russia’s decision to lift the provisional suspension on figure skater Kamila Valieva. So FIFA wanted to make its ban as legally watertight as possible.
Q: Is this ban fair toward Russian athletes? They’re not the ones waging war …
A: Some people feel that way and it’s why, even when Russia were banned from the Olympics, the athletes were still allowed to compete as individuals. But it’s important to note that the ban is on Russian institutions, not athletes. Russian players who compete in other countries — like Atalanta forward Aleksei Miranchuk, who scored on Monday night against Sampdoria, but did not celebrate — are free to play.
Historically, there was a sense that sports and politics should always remain staunchly separate. This goes way back to Olympic Games in ancient Greece when, so the story goes, they’d actually suspend wars to compete in Olympiads. But folks figured out long ago that sports are excellent propaganda tools for governments, and the line has become blurred.
In 1973, the Soviet Union boycotted a World Cup playoff game against Chile because of human rights violations by the government of Augusto Pinochet. In 1976, 28 African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympics after the IOC refused to kick out New Zealand, whose rugby team had toured South Africa in violation of a worldwide boycott. A number of Western countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The list goes on and on.
More broadly, I think we’ve become more comfortable with our sporting institutions taking positions that in the past were deemed as “political” or “taking sides” and therefore unacceptable, whether it’s taking 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 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 from 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled from the Olympics for having the temerity to raise their black-gloved fists into the Mexico City sky. Which is 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 qualification playoffs and the women’s European Championships.