Sports

Why Did Global Soccer Ban Russia, Really?

It was the right thing to do. But the game typically has no problem with killer dictators and oligarchs.

Liverpool supporters hold up a Ukrainian flag with the team’s motto “You’ll Never Walk Alone” written on it, a peace sign illustrated in the "o" of "Alone," amid general signs supporting Liverpool FC and team star Mo Salah.
Liverpool supporters hold up a Ukrainian flag in the crowd ahead of the English League Cup final match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Wembley Stadium, in London on Sunday. Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

Anything as popular as soccer, whose fans number in the billions, is bound to become currency. The game carries immense value for people who play and watch it, but also to anyone who wants to use it to reach hearts, minds, and wallets the world over. In the past 30 years, the commoditization of the world’s game has accelerated, both as a television product and as a means for the ultra-rich to blow their money and burnish their reputations. The Club, a 2019 book about the English Premier League’s transformation into a mammoth, is worth your time if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of how some of soccer’s kingpins made it happen.

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The highest tier of global soccer is so expensive now that there probably is no ethical way to afford membership. But the roster of EPL club owners is a who’s-who of murderous dictators; scions of other oil-rich, human rights-denying royal families; and oligarchs who pillaged state assets to make themselves rich as their countries privatized them after the Cold War. (One of them, Chelsea boss Roman Abramovich, now says he’s relinquishing day-to-day operations of the club. Busy man that he is, he’s also somehow involved in peace talks, maybe.) It’s not that their acquisitions of their clubs didn’t attract attention or criticism, but that their money was green and plentiful enough that club soccer welcomed them anyway.

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International soccer has operated in a similar way, even though its governing bodies are ostensibly nonprofits. Hence you get Russia and Qatar hosting the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cups despite not only grim human rights records but a presentation to FIFA’s executive committee that wasn’t even good. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea did not discourage FIFA leading up to the ’18 tournament. The federation said Russia hosting the World Cup “can achieve positive change.” Qatar’s habit of having migrant workers die on the job in preparation for the World Cup only yielded a FIFA rebuttal that, actually, its presence in the country had been a clear positive for workers there. It would’ve been easier to simply play elsewhere, but alas.

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So, Monday was jarring. FIFA and UEFA, the body that runs European competition, kicked Russia out of international soccer “until further notice.” The most immediate effect is that Russia is out of World Cup qualifying matches and will not appear in Qatar in November. (The tournament is later in the year than usual because of Qatar’s summer heat.)

Soccer is not the only sport to come to some sort of public reckoning in recent days over its place in the world. Formula 1 racing pulled out of Russia for the time being, too. Even the world’s best golfers, with a little unintentional nudge from Phil Mickelson, spurned a Saudi Arabia–backed startup tour. FIFA’s decision is stark, though, if only because soccer has spent the past few decades screaming, “That is not our problem!” in response to anything that might pose one.

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I have no idea if FIFA’s ejection of Russian teams heralds anything in particular about how soccer or any other sport will handle malign governments going forward. But it does highlight the increasing impossibility of FIFA or any other governing body pretending that it can silo itself off from the surrounding world. The Beijing Olympics were an awkward geopolitical dance that prevented anyone involved from separating the Games from everything else. But FIFA booting Russia is something different: an entire sport’s overlords realizing the status quo was impossible in light of a particular kind of war that Russia’s president started all on his own.

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Vladimir Putin is trying to take over Ukraine with guns and tanks. Western governments are trying to discourage him by making his and his country’s finances as big a mess as possible without inconveniencing Western citizens. Russia is fighting a war against Ukraine. Ukrainians are physically fighting back, but everyone else is fighting a financial and public messaging war whose weapons are asset freezes, property seizures, banking network cutoffs, and tersely worded statements recited at podiums. Soviet and Soviet-aligned teams competed in international sports throughout the Cold War, even when it spilled into actual war. But today, with the battlefield outside Ukraine’s borders dominated by numbers and words, sports is a more natural additional front in the conflict—and perhaps an unavoidable one.

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Soccer especially is, given its popularity in Europe and Russia and the timing of Putin’s invasion. UEFA moved the Champions League club final, scheduled for May 28, from St. Petersburg to Paris. The English FA announced that none of England’s teams would play any of Russia’s under any circumstances. And most importantly, the world’s biggest sporting event is fast approaching. FIFA was hoping as recently as Sunday to use half-measures like banning the Russian flag and anthem but letting the team play on.

But here, FIFA ran into a problem. Teams are already in the thick of the qualifying slate for Qatar, and the other nations in Russia’s group all have their own security reasons to be furious and fearful at Putin’s war. Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic were unequivocal that they would not face Russia. As the soccer writer Mike L. Goodman put it, “Geopolitically this was just the absolute wrong group of opponents for Russia to have for FIFA to have this situation fade away.” Polish striker and national icon Robert Lewandowski was among players to speak up:

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FIFA is rich and powerful, but no sporting organization is rich or powerful enough to overcome entire teams refusing to play. (The governments behind those teams were also clear that their squads would not take the pitch against Russia.) The UEFA ban, if it remains in effect until the summer, will also keep Russia out of the women’s European Championship, set to be staged between the continent’s best teams in July. Together, the FIFA and UEFA moves amount to a comprehensive blackballing of Russian teams from international competition.

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To say nothing of all the other bad things countries can do, Russia is not the only soccer-playing nation with an authoritarian government that is carrying out a war in another country. Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen didn’t dissuade the Premier League from letting the nation’s Public Investment Fund take control of Newcastle United in 2021, and it didn’t lead FIFA to ban the country from the World Cup. (The Saudis are in a good position to qualify.) Someone might get the impression that FIFA’s decision-making corresponds more with Western governments’ crosshairs than with any particular ethical code. That would be right, though it doesn’t at all mean FIFA made the wrong call in kicking out Russia. The Qatar World Cup is going ahead no matter the body count of abused workers who helped build it.

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FIFA’s decision-making is worth examining not for whataboutist purposes, but because of what it suggests about future interventions. FIFA discovering principles only when Western governments are livid at a certain country is not new. Both FIFA and the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from 1964 to 1992 in response to apartheid, a few decades before FIFA picked the country as a World Cup host. Apartheid began in 1948 and had lasted 14 years by the time the sporting bodies moved. But in 1963, a year before the bans, the United Nations Security Council placed a nonmandatory arms embargo on South Africa. (The U.N. made it “mandatory” in 1977.) Before FIFA and the IOC acted, some tennis players at Wimbledon refused to face South Africans, and the apartheid government only dug its heels in. UEFA’s ban of Yugoslavia in 1992 likewise came almost immediately after the U.N. sanctioned the country.

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The Security Council can’t say much about Russia because Russia has veto power on that committee, but you get the idea. Soccer’s governing bodies are not instruments of change as much as they are responsive to it. So the best way to answer the question of whether banning Russia says anything about the federation’s philosophy is with another set of questions: “What do the U.S. and Western Europe think? Is anyone about to boycott a match? And exactly how much public-relations heat will FIFA get if it doesn’t do something?” Those are the nations that have the most money and the biggest financial stakes in international soccer—and the most power to influence when FIFA and UEFA do and do not act.

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Through this lens, it isn’t anything out of the ordinary that Russia’s soccer teams are paying a price for Putin’s move into Ukraine. But authoritarians like sports as much as the rest of us—Putin is a big fan—and if Western governments believe pulling Russia out of international competitions will grate on him (or some future adversary), there’s no reason they can’t apply pressure on bodies like FIFA and the IOC until the end of time.

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It is not clear how much national unity Putin has behind him for his invasion—at minimum, thousands of Russians have protested the war and have been arrested for it—and he doesn’t exactly need popular domestic support, given that he does not bother with the concept of free elections. But a thriving sports team is one thing that can help build national pride, and soccer’s current front against Russia will at least deny Putin that. Getting to the right answer, even by accident and when it might not change much, is better than what FIFA can usually say for itself.

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