“We won’t play against Russia at the World Cup, that’s for sure. Let’s see if FIFA has the balls to give Russia the World Cup by forfeit—I don’t think so.”
Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, whose wife is Ukrainian, expressed his team’s position on the crisis succinctly at the weekend. Poland were scheduled to face Russia in two play-off games to determine which of them qualifies for soccer’s World Cup in Qatar, and Polish players dared the governing body, FIFA, to punish them for refusing to participate. England, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and others also refuse to play against Russia.
FIFA’s initial response was the same as the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) over Russia’s doping program. It condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and called for the “urgent restoration of peace and for constructive dialogue to commence immediately” in a statement yesterday (Feb. 27). But it did not do the most powerful thing it could have done: Ban Russia.
Today (Feb. 28), that changed. Russia and its ally Belarus are suspended from international soccer competitions.
FIFA’s original decision meant that Russia would have been allowed to compete at the World Cup, if it qualifies, but in the usual disguise. The Russian flag and anthem were to be banned, and its team could only play on neutral territory, in empty stadiums. But it could have still competed under the name “Football Union of Russia.”
In the Beijing Winter Olympics, from which Russia was also banned, more than 200 Russian athletes participated under the “Russian Olympic Committee” banner.
In 2018, Russia hosted the soccer World Cup and the Winter Olympic Games. “The sportswashing has happened,” writes The Guardian’s Barney Ronay. “Commerce, politics, and televised sporting entertainment have served their purpose. Putin’s Russia has gained influence, soft power, and legitimacy. The home public has been placated. Sochi and Moscow have been used to dole out favors to Putin’s loyal lieutenants.
While FIFA sat on the fence, in deed if not in carefully crafted PR statements, several sporting organizations had already spoken up. Even the IOC today (Feb. 28) recommended that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be banned, too.
The International Judo Federation suspended Vladimir Putin as its honorary president. Four major boxing associations have refused to sanction fights in Russia. Skiing, curling, and Formula 1 pulled premier events from Russia, and swimming and water polo tournaments in the country have also been canceled.
This piece has been updated.