In response to rising demand to take action against Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, the leadership of the international soccer’s governing body decided on a series of restrictions on Sunday that would take effect in time for Russia’s key World Cup qualification match against Serbia next month. In contrast to the demands of Russia’s opponents, the proposed sanctions do not include an outright ban on the country’s national team. As a result, it is uncertain if the proposed sanctions would be sufficient to bring the clash to a close, or whether the games will be played at all.
Earlier this year, Russia was drawn against Poland as part of a four-team group vying for one of Europe’s remaining two spots in the World Cup to be held in Qatar later this year. Russian President Vladimir Putin said that if his country wins its game against Poland, it will play either Sweden or Czech Republic for a spot in the World Cup in Qatar, which begins in November. The first round of Russia’s playoffs, as well as a possible second game, had been slated to take place in Moscow.
To express their opposition to Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine, the three other teams competing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic have all said that they would not play the country under any circumstances.
Several elite players, notably Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, who is now the reigning FIFA global player of the year, have endorsed the decision to boycott any games featuring the Russian national team. These words, as well as similar ones made by other players, have resulted in considerable pressure being applied to FIFA to have Russia eliminated from the tournament.
Other soccer organisations have also taken action against Russia, including the FIFA. Last week, European soccer’s governing body stripped St. Petersburg of the right to compete in this year’s Champions League final, and on Sunday, the English soccer federation announced that it would not play Russia in any international games for the foreseeable future “out of solidarity with Ukraine and to fully condemn the atrocities being committed by the Russian leadership.”
Earlier on Sunday, a group of FIFA’s top officials attempted to find a way out of the simmering confrontation by agreeing to penalise Russia. They ordered that Russia’s team would be allowed to play only in neutral venues and empty stadiums; that it would be required to play without its flag or national anthem; and that it would only be allowed to play if its team agreed to be known as the Football Union of Russia, rather than Russia, in international competitions.
Sweden’s soccer federation head, Karl-Erik Nilsson, has also said that the nation would not play Russia and has requested FIFA to terminate the country’s participation in the World Cup playoffs in March.
According to three senior soccer officials familiar with FIFA’s discussions, Sunday’s sanctions are only the first step in a series of actions against the country’s soccer teams. A harsher penalty — most likely an outright ban on Russian teams — could be imposed if Russia’s attacks on Ukraine continue or if the country refuses to abide by Sunday’s sanctions.
It is a reiteration of some of the penalties imposed against Russian teams by the International Olympic Committee after the country was discovered to be running a large, state-sponsored doping programme; those penalties were widely criticised as insufficient by athletes and Olympic officials from other countries.
They may also be insufficient to convince Russia’s opponents to agree to share a field with a Russian team, putting FIFA in the awkward position of having to dismiss three of its members from the playoff — and therefore enabling Russia to progress unopposed to the World Cup, soccer’s pinnacle event.
FIFA did not provide any further information beyond its announcement on the planned sanctions against Russia, or on the objections of the three other federations that have pledged not to compete in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Russia’s soccer association, known as the R.F.U., has categorically denied any idea that it would not play the game or games planned in Moscow as scheduled.
Russia, its top officials, as well as numerous rich people and businesses, have already been singled out by the West and subjected to severe sanctions that are having an immediate impact on life in the nation, including a ban on Russian airlines flying to much of Europe. Because of this limitation, securing a site for any game featuring the Russian national team would most certainly be impossible.
In international athletic circles, Russia is already largely regarded as a pariah after a state-sponsored doping programme tainted a number of major sporting events, including world championships and several editions of the Olympic Games, over many years.
If Russia’s national team qualifies for the World Cup — and if it is permitted to compete in the tournament — it will not be permitted to fly its flag, perform its anthem, or be identified by its official name, according to a set of sanctions imposed by the global anti-doping agency two years ago. These penalties do not apply to games in the qualifying round.