Why this matters
Sports organizations have finally banished and cut ties with Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine, but football’s top global organizing body in particular carries much of the blame for embracing Vladimir Putin and aiding Russia’s efforts to use football to prop up its image around the world.
Speaking at a press conference held on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Gianni Infantino’s first instinct was to deflect the questions – probably because the FIFA president had no good answers.
“Will you be retaining your Order of Friendship medal that you received from Vladimir Putin after the 2018 World Cup?” asked AP reporter Rob Harris. “And in light of all the developments that have happened now, do you have any regrets about the 2018 World Cup or your glowing endorsements of Putin and his conduct?”
Infantino, who leads the world’s top football organization, could have given a simple reply: no, and yes. He could have elaborated, showing remorse for FIFA’s role in laundering the Putin regime’s image through sport. Public opinion already had swung to near-universal commendation of Russia and support for Ukraine. There was plenty of cover for Infantino to tell the world what he thought of Putin, to issue the tiniest of mea culpas for cozying up to the Russian leader, to make airy promises about doing better in the future.
Only that’s not what happened.
“We are constantly reflecting on the role of sport,” Infantino said. “In particular, the role of sport to bring people together in a peaceful environment. Even people, countries who don’t have relations with each other, or who are in a conflict.”
Infantino waffled on for a bit before a press officer shut down the chance for anybody to ask follow-up questions. The moment was a window into FIFA’s nonexistent ethical center, and more evidence that one shouldn’t read much into the organization’s late-arriving decision to suspend Russia’s national soccer teams from international competition, a decision that will likely result in its men’s team missing this year’s World Cup.
Did FIFA do the right thing? Yes. Did it do the right thing for the right reasons, showing that it can be counted on to do the right things in the future? Absolutely not. Soccer’s global governing body hasn’t suddenly grown a conscience, let alone a moral backbone. By taking action against Russia, it simply did what it had to do – all while hoping that the world would forget all about Infantino’s many previous proclamations hailing Putin, which have aged as disastrously as a Halloween pumpkin left on the porch for an entire winter.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Infantino declared that “this is a new image of Russia that we now have.” He called himself and Putin “a team.” He subsequently praised Putin with “a big well done” after Russia hosted the Beach Soccer World Cup in 2021, never mind that the World Anti-Doping Agency had urged governing bodies not to stage major sporting events in Russia in the wake of its state-sponsored doping scandals.
Right now on FIFA’s website, there is a story about Infantino receiving Russia’s Medal of Friendship in 2019, illustrated with a picture of the beaming Swiss sportocrat shaking hands with a smirking Putin.
“You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken,” Infantino said at the ceremony. “This is not the end; it is only the beginning of our fruitful cooperation and interaction.”
FIFA awarded Russia the 2018 World Cup in 2010, two years after Russia invaded Georgia. FIFA allowed Russia to keep that World Cup despite its annexation of Crimea in 2014, the precursor to its current Ukraine invasion, and despite its brutal intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, which propped up dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with the Sochi Games in 2014, FIFA had no problem renting out its marquee event, the World Cup, even if it meant burnishing Putin’s personal brand, strengthening his domestic standing, and enriching his cronies. FIFA even allowed Russia to choose a stadium in Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave right on the Polish border, as one of its World Cup venues. Russia experts believed that the stadium, which looks an awful lot like a gray tank, was designed specifically to project military strength on the border of Poland, a member country in the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO).
The truth is that FIFA has actively abetted Putin’s two-decade domestic and international consolidation of power. “Awarding the organization of a world sporting event to Russia is to some extent recognizing it as the same country-organizer as other countries that have already hosted the championship,” says Dr. Jan A. Wendt, a professor at the University of Gdansk who has researched soccer’s cross-pollination with geopolitics. “Sport, despite declarations of apoliticality, is clearly mixed up with politics. All sports organizations should bear in mind who they cooperate with, under what conditions, and why.”
Historically, FIFA has never given much thought to any of that. It didn’t mind – at least not outwardly – when Benito Mussolini leveraged the 1934 World Cup to suit his own fascist and nationalist ends, the same way Adolf Hitler leveraged the 1936 Berlin Olympics. FIFA wasn’t bothered that Mexican Armed Forces slaughtered civilian protestors on the eve of the 1968 Summer Olympics; two years later, Mexico hosted the 1970 World Cup.
The 1978 World Cup was held in Argentina even though Juan Rafael Videla’s junta had seized power in a coup just two years prior. His regime disappeared thousands, and held some of its political prisoners so close to the Estadio Monumental in Buenos Aires that they could hear the games from their overcrowded cells. Argentina’s victory in that tournament, which was dogged by suspicion of foul play, soothed a fractious national mood to the point that Videla and his cronies managed to cling on to power for three more years.
So no, FIFA didn’t cancel Russia because it suddenly got religion. The organization does not deserve a cookie. FIFA was a follower, not a leader, moving markedly slower against Russia than even Formula 1 – which typically has no qualms about holding races in problematic places like Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi.
More to the point, FIFA’s hand was forced. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) already had kicked Russian clubs out of its own European continental competitions. The IOC had recommended that all Russian national teams be suspended. When Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic all declared that they would not play Russia in the March playoffs for the final European places at this year’s World Cup, FIFA was left with two choices: suspend Russia, or (much more controversially) award it a place in Qatar by forfeit.
By choosing the former, FIFA took the path of least resistance. The Venn diagram of NATO countries and soccer’s centers of power and revenue is basically a circle. Russia’s invasion literally hits too close to home, making it too socially and geopolitically toxic to continue soccer business as usual. Just look at the messes around Premier League clubs Chelsea FC and Everton FC, which are respectively owned and sponsored by Russian oligarchs. Or see how Manchester United FC and German club FC Schalke 04 quickly canceled lucrative sponsorship deals with Russian companies.
“[FIFA’s Russia] ban was overdue, as evidenced by the fact that it was issued under pressure from the decisions of national football associations and international public opinion, and not as a result of internal decisions made by the FIFA board,” Wendt says.
Don’t confuse FIFA’s decision with actual courage. And don’t expect a different FIFA going forward. This year’s World Cup will be held in Qatar, which won the event on the back of grift and horse-trading, and where abusive and deadly labor practices reportedly have been used to build the tournament’s stadiums and infrastructure. It’s also expected that China, which already has landed FIFA’s revamped Club World Cup, will host a future World Cup – never mind that country’s dismal human rights record. It took extraordinarily bad Russian behavior to spur FIFA into action; even then, the organization would clearly rather continue to make like Infantino, saying little and doing even less. “Football,” Wendt says, “has not reformed.”