FIFA makes the same mistakes as the IOC when it comes to placating Russia
In times like these, when the eyes of the world are on a war unfolding in Eastern Europe, it may seem trivial and pointless to focus on the role of sport at large.
A key element of any war, however, is the battle for public perception, the battle for hearts and minds. Soccer teams, judo federations and even chess organizations are blaming and dismissing Russia in retaliation for its invasion of Ukraine. Refusing to compete against Russian teams, banning Russian athletes from competitions, moving major championships out of Russia…all have a cumulative, tangible effect on Russia’s isolation on the world stage.
Sport is never just about what happens on the field. Dictators like Vladimir Putin crave the prestige that comes from winning gold medals. China can portray the recently concluded Olympic Games under lockdown as a well-executed masterpiece. Saudi Arabia can try to wash itself clean by throwing tens of millions at the world’s most notable golfers. Nobody with real power sticks to sport for sport’s sake.
Hosting and winning major sporting events lends legitimacy and public pride unmatched by any other cultural endeavor. (This works in the States too; the fine folk of Athens, Georgia, and the several dozen Angelenos who call themselves Rams fans are prouder these days.)
That’s why it’s so important that sports federations take their power seriously, and why it’s always disappointing – but never surprising – when they shrug off that responsibility to ingratiate themselves with autocracies and the pursuit of easy, amoral wealth.
Around the world, football is in the midst of qualifying for the World Cup, the quadrennial championship that unites the planet like no other international endeavor. FIFA, the organization of football, wields tremendous power… and, like the International Olympic Committee, constantly chooses the path that leads to its own continued enrichment. With Russia, FIFA has finally dropped the hammer… but only after literally making the exact same mistake the IOC made eight years earlier in the early days of the invasion.
Back then, following the discovery of a state-sanctioned doping operation at the Sochi 2014 Olympics, the IOC had the regulatory equivalent of an open-court runaway. But instead of a simple slam dunk, the IOC somehow ended up swallowing the ball and flying backwards into the seats. The IOC has not marginalized Russia and banned the country from several Olympics. Instead, Russia suffered the “penalty” of having its athletes compete under a slightly different name and anthem… and that was about it.
Shocking: This “punishment” did not immediately lead to the fact that Russia saw the light of day, changed its behavior and renounced all doping. The power boost under the table just kept humming, leading straight to the heartbreaking, infuriating debacle that was the women’s ice skating competition at the Olympics a few weeks ago.
Without any historical perspective, FIFA initially proposed the exact same punishment almost literally: to let Russia continue playing, albeit under the name “Football Union of Russia”. Yes, no one will be able to find out where this mysterious team came from. Under immense global pressure, FIFA finally banned all Russian teams and clubs from international play “until further notice” on Monday.
It’s all part of FIFA’s continued comfort with Putin and Russia, which hosted the 2018 World Cup. The bid process for that event, and later that year for Qatar, was part of a literally worldwide conspiracy, a corrupt cash-for-votes company that ensnared several FIFA members and resulted in significant revenues at the top of FIFA.
Gianni Infantino took over FIFA in 2016 with a promise to clean up the rotten corruption that has plagued FIFA to its core. Three years later he received the Order of Friendship from Putin. Three years later, he attempted to punish Putin with a first sentence about as harsh as offering him the second best bottle of wine with his steak. On the house, of course.
Admittedly, FIFA’s situation is not directly analogous to the IOC’s situation – the Russian national football team is not involved in the invasion of Ukraine – but the same overarching rule applies. Appeasement is useless. Russia’s opponents in qualifying know this, which is why they’ve all agreed not to even play Russia, whatever the name.
“We are not interested in participating in this performance game,” said Cezary Kulesza, president of the Polish Football Association. tweeted Sunday. “Our position remains unchanged: the Polish national team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team.”
Sweden and the Czech Republic reiterated this stance, and all three nations, who faced Russia in a four-team qualifier, had indicated they would rather squander and give up their chance at a once-every-four-year World Cup than take it Pitch with Russia.
Other football organizations have taken direct action – UEFA pulled the Champions League final from St Petersburg, a significant penalty – but FIFA spent too much time focusing on finger-wagging and disapproving press releases .
“FIFA will continue its ongoing dialogue with the IOC, UEFA and other sports organizations to determine additional measures or sanctions, including a possible ban on competitions, to be imposed in the near future if the situation does not improve quickly,” the statement said FIFA firmly in its first press release. Please do not force us to consider the possible feasibility of additional meetings to consider options at some unspecified time in the future, Russia.
The IOC gave FIFA the cover it needed to finally make the call to ban Russia. Monday morning, the IOC called on sports organizations worldwide to ban Russian and allied Belarusian athletes and officials from international sporting events. It is unclear whether the IOC will abide by this decree at the upcoming Paralympics or if it is a “do as I say, not as I do” decree.
FIFA and the IOC have not achieved their global influence by prioritizing morality over financial gain. But with the largest military action on European soil since World War II growing somber, the demands on any entity with the power to take whatever action is necessary will only increase. At the moment, the fans and players who love international football have more backbone than the people who run it.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Emox News. Follow him on Twitter @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.