FIFA plays along with despots. It's not working

For decades now, Russian President Vladimir Putin, among other despots and dictators, has used feckless international sports organizations to prop them up and help cleanse their dismal record on human rights.

FIFA, the International Olympic Committee and others have gladly done the bidding of the worst of the world’s worst in the name of money. There has never been a bar too low to squirm under.

Since 2008, China has hosted two Olympics and Russia one. The Russians also ran the 2018 men's World Cup soccer tournament

The 2022 men's World Cup will be staged in Qatar, where gleaming stadiums and transportation lines were built by low-paid migrant workers who toiled in unsafe conditions with numerous fatalities. A 2021 analysis from The Guardian newspaper of Great Britain has pegged the number at 6,500.

This will be a haunting tournament come November.

FIFA now finds itself in the midst of a reckoning though, not just from its own conscience as it looks on in horror at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a statement, the organization said it "condemns" the use of Russian force, but that's it.

Its athletes, however, have said plenty. The national teams of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic have agreed that they will not play Russia in upcoming World Cup qualifying matches. Russia was scheduled to face Poland on March 24 with the winner advancing to take on either Sweden or the Czechs five days later.

Now, perhaps not.

“I can’t imagine playing a match with the Russian National Team in a situation when armed aggression in Ukraine continues,” Polish star Robert Lewandowski said. “Russian footballers and fans are not responsible for this, but we can’t pretend that nothing is happening.”

It is the second line that is most powerful because that has always been the excuse by FIFA and the IOC to let these nations, Russia in particular, continue to compete no matter the actions of their governments, the doping scandals of their federations or any other outrageous behavior.

FIFA is expected to follow this dubious path. The New York Times reported Sunday that the organization would allow the Russian team to play but not host the games in Moscow, as currently scheduled. The team would also need to be “known by a different name” and compete “without its flag or national anthem.” (Poland has already rejected these reported punishments.)

This is similar to how the IOC allowed Russian athletes to compete in the past three Olympics from which Russia was technically banned after its massive state-run doping operation was uncovered. Allegations of doping continued anyway.

FIFA and the IOC have tried to paint themselves as sympathetic to the innocent individual and thus allow the guilty central authority to use sports to build nationalism, project strength and, indeed, act like “nothing is happening.”

Will the athletes — in this case rich, famous and powerful international stars such as Lewandowski — go along with it?

FIFA and president Gianni Infantino (right) have allowed Vladimir Putin to run over them with no consequences for years. Will they find the spine to act amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine? (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)
FIFA and president Gianni Infantino (right) have allowed Vladimir Putin to run over them with no consequences for years. Will they find the spine to act amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine? (Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images)

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is a complicated one, a mix of politics, economics, ego and 1,000 years of history. It is foolish to think one single thing, decision or person could have prevented it.

So to be clear, the allowances provided by FIFA and the IOC across the years didn’t cause this tragedy. However, their history of allowing Putin to run over them with almost no consequence certainly didn’t dispel any notion that he and his country are above reproach and force (or bribes) always wins out. It all plays some small role.

So what now?

Can FIFA kick Russia out of the World Cup, a blow to the ego of Putin and a major disappointment to everyday Russian citizens who wish to see their national team play in the biggest sporting event of the year?

FIFA understandably prefers to stay out of political rivalries, but how would it work if a plurality of countries won’t play Russia? And do you run the risk of bringing this all to the actual World Cup?

Or do you side with the country that just invaded another country?

"The first match is one month from now and of course we hope that this whole situation will be solved before then — well before then, as soon as possible,” FIFA president Gianni Infantinio said. "But we have a body in place, the bureau, who can take a decision at any time. We are analyzing the situation and we will take the decision when we have to take it."

Obviously the best case for everyone is that the aggression in Ukraine ends and thus Russia can again compete in World Cup qualifying. Barring a Russian retreat, however, that may be impossible. A Russian occupying force and a Ukrainian guerrilla war could go on and on, or flare back up at different times, which FIFA seems to acknowledge.

The answer here is simple and complicated. Booting Russia out of this year’s World Cup would be the easy thing for most. It would also create a precedent that FIFA would prefer to avoid. What’s the tipping point for protest? How many countries would need to band together to get another country kicked out of the World Cup?

FIFA’s horrific history suggests it would love to ignore everything and just count the money. It has no soul.

The athletes and coaches of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic aren’t allowing that this time.

If those who run the sport don't care, those who play it do.

Where are Russian forces surrounding Ukraine? Check out this explainer from Yahoo Immersive to find out.

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