It is so simple, at least to anyone not entangled in the middle of the mess. All of Poland, Czechia, and Sweden have said they will refuse to play Russia in World Cup qualifiers at the end of March. While a ban from FIFA isn’t going to end Russia’s occupation of Ukraine, there is no pressure point that shouldn’t be squeezed. It’s about collective action by anyone who can take one. And there is precedent. Yugoslavia was thrown out of the 1992 European championships due to the Yugoslav wars. That was UEFA and not FIFA, but the precedent is still the same.
Of course, perhaps FIFA is worried about what questions it would have to answer, and how hypocritical it might look, because they have a small hand in all of this.
FIFA, after all, is the organization that handed Russia the World Cup in 2018, some four years after they had invaded Crimea. And also after the fiasco that was the IOC handing Sochi the Olympics of 2014 that further allowed Putin to bankrupt his country and residents and enrich his friends and himself. Also to allow him to put forth an image of success and dominance, which is what he’s always really been after.
The World Cup was no different, another symbol of Putin’s opulence. Of course, there were also questions about exactly how Russia won that vote, and a lot of them were exactly like the questions about how Qatar won their bid for November’s tournaments. Both were awarded at the same time, certainly not lessening the stench of the process.
So FIFA, for now, decided to pass on the only answer that matters, and went the cowardly IOC route by allowing the Russian team to still play but with no flags or anthems and not on home soil, as if that’s some sort of punishment. No, the Russian players or fans didn’t cause this invasion, but again, it’s about collective action.
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And we know sports are important to Putin, incredibly so. That’s why he projects the North Korean-like fairy tales of his play on the ice when he can barely skate. Or his positioning of himself next to Alex Ovechkin and others. Or the state-run doping program that landed Russia in the lukewarm water with the IOC, which started with the Games they hosted. Or Putin’s shirtless horse rides. FIFA could have made a statement. They passed.
Of course, FIFA and soccer as a whole have been in bed with bad governmental actors for a while now. They come from Qatar, or the UAE, or Saudi Arabia. Gazprom was an official partner of FIFA and sponsored a few clubs around Europe. There’s a couple Russian oligarchs who own teams, even if they went through the showy, NCAA program-style of punishing themselves in the hopes of dodging real penalties.
Maybe FIFA will get there in the end. They’ve allowed themselves just a touch more runway, and might not have any choice if Poland simply refuses to play, as does the winner between Sweden and Czechia. Allowing Russia a free runway into the World Cup will be a much worse look.
But that would involve FIFA actually having to examine what small role it played in all of this. And we know self-examination isn’t something it’s ever been terribly interested in, as with most billion-dollar organizations.
Let’s balance it out with the good side of the sport. I’m always a sucker for last-minute winners, especially when they’re truly class strikes that crash into the net, and even more especially when they may prove pivotal in a memorable title challenge. Napoli, which hasn’t won the Italian league since Maradona was dragging them to the Scudetto, surged to the top of Serie A with this from Fabian Ruiz to beat Lazio 2-1 with the last kick of the match:
Always here for a goal that causes the whole bench to storm down the sideline, as well as everyone going so nuts they pretty much ignore the actual goal scorer to just run to their traveling fans in the corner. It’s rare that sports cause so many to take leave of their senses (in a good fashion), and it’s worth cherishing when it does.
[Update]:According to the New York Times, FIFA will ban Russia from the 2022 World Cup, with an announcement coming as soon as tonight: