MOSCOW—Four years ago, Russians were singing and dancing, celebrating in the streets here as hosts of the World Cup, along with soccer fans from all over the world. This year, Russian soccer supporters were not even sure whether they would actually be able to watch the tournament in Qatar on TV.
Russian soccer players were excluded from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar: In February, FIFA and UEFA announced that Russian clubs and national teams had been banned from competitions “until further notice” after Moscow started what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine. But that didn’t stop FIFA from selling the right to broadcast the tournament for around $40 million to Russian state channels.
On Monday evening, I visited a Moscow sports bar where only a few people were watching matches between England and Iran and the Netherlands and Senegal. One of the reasons may be that it was a workday. Another is that not many fans are willing to gather to watch the competition from which their country was thrown out. The bar manager told me that on Sunday, when the World Cup began, there were no crowds, either.
One of the bar guests, Sergei, complained, “When politics interferes, and countries get banned for no good reason, it doesn’t help sports and soccer in particular to advance.”
Another guest, Karen, also expressed disappointment in FIFA’s decision: “We will watch the World Cup and enjoy soccer. But I am against mixing politics with sports. Those who devoted their lives to sports should not lose the opportunity to participate in international competitions.” His friend David Maisuradze agrees: “At least two or three teams in this World Cup are weaker than our national team. If they are in Doha, why is Russia not?” But he is still keen to follow the contest. “Even when Russia takes part, I am not rooting for it. I am not a fan of the Russian team; I am a fan of beautiful, nice soccer,” he said, hinting at Russian footballers’ disappointing performance in international competition. (He’s a Brazil supporter.)
The memory of Russia hosting the World Cup in 2018 now seems unreal, as does the quality of Russia’s soccer back then. (The national team made it to the quarterfinals and made fans genuinely proud.) Before this World Cup began in Qatar, Russian media fantasized about how the national team could have looked if it had not been removed from the contest. “It is not guaranteed that Russia could have beaten Poland in playoffs.” (In March, Poland refused to play with Russia due to the “special military operation.”) “But it is hard to strip ourselves of pleasure to imagine how our squad could have looked in Qatar,” the newspaper Sports Express wrote.
But last week the Russian side played its first two FIFA-approved friendly matches in a year—with Tajikistan on Nov. 17 and Uzbekistan on Nov. 20. Russia couldn’t score, despite fans’ expectations—both matches ended up in ties, which made journalists and supporters question the team’s skills. “If we can’t win over Tajikistan, maybe it is to the best that we don’t participate in the World Cup,” wrote Championat.com.
Peter, another soccer fan from Moscow, thinks that Russia’s ban seemed inevitable in light of the political situation. “Previous half-measures, which allowed Russians, including the hockey team, to compete under the neutral flag at Olympics, were not very effective. Athletes were not barred from the competitions, and their uniforms basically had the Russian flag on them,” he said. “All major football federations had to react in current geopolitical circumstances.” Peter added that watching the World Cup this time might be more enjoyable, as he won’t need to be nervous about the Russian team’s performance.
While Russians still have access to the World Cup, they cannot watch the matches of the English Premier League, which is considered one of the best soccer leagues in the world. In March, the league suspended its broadcast contracts with Russia in response to the “special military operation.” Soccer fan Maria said she watches games on European streaming services she preferred not to name and pays for access with a European bank card. “If the Russian team participated in the World Cup, I wouldn’t watch its matches. I am interested in the English Premier League and La Liga, and after watching their games, it is tough to appreciate Russian soccer,” she said. Those who don’t have foreign bank cards or want to avoid bothering themselves with circumventing restrictions watch pirated broadcasts of the English Premier League. But most soccer fans I spoke to admitted that they simply stopped following the English football games. A soccer fan from Moscow, Vasiliy, is among them. “EPL lost tremendous support among Russians,” he thinks.
Among other European associations that halted their broadcast contracts with Russia are the French Professional Football League, the Scottish Football Association, and the Portuguese Primeira Liga. Russia’s main sports broadcaster, the state-owned Match TV channel, still has the rights to show the UEFA Champions League and German Bundesliga.
A soccer fan from Moscow, Kirill, said that limited access to broadcasts of European football matches is the main reason he will not follow the World Cup closely. “I am not excited not because Russia is absent, but because I have lost interest in international and European football due to lack of proper coverage,” he said.
Soccer matches aren’t the only sports missing for the Russian audience. The National Hockey League suspended its broadcasting deals with Russian agents. Formula 1 ended its contract with Match TV channel and blocked its website in Russia. NASCAR races are not shown in Russia anymore. The National Basketball Association stopped its content distribution in the region. Discovery ceased broadcast of its 15 channels in Russia, including Eurosport, which used to show tennis competitions. The U.S. Open Tennis Championships website is blocked for Russian users.
Meanwhile, Russians continue to watch international competitions that are still available to them. There is always a risk that more will disappear from TV screens, following the calls from politicians in other countries for sports leagues to stop broadcasting in Russia—or because Russia will cut them itself, like it did with German Bundesliga soccer matches in April because of ads against the “special military operation” at the stadium.