FIFA has no choice but to ban Russia, following the invasion of Ukraine – and here's why

Russia
(Image credit: Getty)

It was a brilliant solution. Or so FIFA might have thought for about 20 minutes. Russia could compete in World Cup play-offs, just not in Russia, or with a flag or a national anthem. Give them a slight name change to ‘Football Union of Russia’ and everyone would be happy.

They weren’t, of course. Poland saw through a pathetic scheme. The president of their FA, Cezary Kulesza, described it as “unacceptable” and underlined on Sunday that Poland would not face Russia, under any name or guise. The Swedish FA duly followed on Monday. Presumably, the Czech Republic would agree, leaving Russia in a knockout segment with three teams who won’t take the field against them. 

Even FIFA surely cannot then just give Russia a bye to the World Cup.

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As Gianni Infantino either is a moral vacuum or does a very good impression of one, FIFA’s lack of principle is entirely unsurprising. It is rather more heartening that many national federations, plus players such as Robert Lewandowski and Wojciech Szczesny, have shown more backbone. Sometimes it is possible to maintain the line that sport and politics don’t mix; not amid global outrage that a genocidal maniac is trying to destroy an independent country (which, by the way, is one of FIFA’s members) and is already responsible for hundreds, and probably thousands, of deaths of its citizens.

UEFA at least acted swiftly by stripping Russia of the Champions League final, without resolving the problem of their sponsorship deal with Gazprom and with the false equivalence of saying sides from both countries would have to play at neutral venues. Perhaps it was designed as a holding statement, but it is a position that cannot be maintained for long.

As Poland said, Russia should be thrown out of the World Cup. But not just that. They should be expelled from both FIFA and UEFA, ejected from Nations League and European Championship qualifying, from every club competition, every women’s and age-group tournament.

Not merely because others – as the statements of the English, Welsh and Scottish FAs show – will refuse to play them. And not even just because it is the right thing to do. But also because it would be a step to make amends. There has been much talk of sportswashing in recent years: by giving Russia a World Cup and two Champions League finals, FIFA and UEFA helped normalise Vladimir Putin’s regime, allowing him to bask in the reflected glory and look a legitimate member of the international community. They almost certainly never imagined Russia would invade Ukraine but were complicit in improving its reputation.

Russia 2018 World Cup

(Image credit: Getty)

If part of the punishment for Putin is, as Joe Biden said last week, to make him a pariah, football can play a part. Even despots crave acceptance; they don’t want their authority rejected by the outside world. World Cups, European Championships and Champions Leagues when Russia and Russian clubs are barred provide a powerful statement. They delegitimise a country. Sporting boycotts may not have finished off apartheid South Africa, but they underlined that much of the rest of the world felt it was fundamentally immoral.

Russia should become the undesirables. Or one of two, perhaps. If the same sanctions should be applied to Belarus if Putin’s lackeys join the invasion of Ukraine, perhaps few would notice, given how wretched their national team has been.

But there is one team that should remain in competitions. FIFA and UEFA have a duty to Ukraine and, whatever the country’s future, the national side should remain. They should have funding. Whether or not they can play in Kiev again, they should be accommodated elsewhere, preferably playing their ‘home’ games in cities where there is an expectation, either because of an expatriate population or sympathy for their plight, that they will generate support. They should be given every opportunity to qualify for tournaments and then compete in them.

t may be harder to keep Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev going, but efforts should be made. They, like Dnipro and Zorya Luhansk, should be invited to enter European club competitions next season, even if they are unable to take up their places; the various Moscow clubs, Zenit St Petersburg and Sochi should have indefinite bans. Russia will remain a rogue state for as long as Putin exerts any influence and must be exiled from world sport.

If football alone does not have the power to accomplish that, the International Olympic Committee, by suggesting sports organisations exclude all Russian and Belarussian athletes from international events, has set the right example. 

They have at least taken a stand. Bodies like FIFA and UEFA can tie themselves in knots trying to remain neutral in every dispute. Sometimes that is even the correct response. Not now. This time they have to pick a side. Do they want to give a tacit endorsement to Putin’s bloody actions or condemn them? Do they want to be on the right side of history or the wrong one?

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