On February 28th, the FIFA council, governing body of world soccer, suspended Russia from participating in international soccer matches, including the upcoming World Cup. This was after intense pressure from Western governments to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Read news coverage here.
FIFA initially hesitated to take this step, citing its statutes which say that it must remain neutral in matters of politics and religion. They maintained that politics should have no place in their decision-making, and they are forbidden by statute from taking actions against a nation’s soccer teams for any reason not directly related to soccer itself.
There is, however, one part of the FIFA statutes that could be a basis for this action. It says that FIFA is committed to recognizing human rights and shall strive to promote them. Russia’s war of aggression is a human rights abomination, so suspending Russia’s soccer teams as part of the effort to pressure Russia to stop its war seems to make sense. This seems to be the basis for FIFA’s change of heart, and when Russia challenges their suspension in the Court for Arbitration of Sport that’s the rationale FIFA likely will use. (See the FIFA statutes here, page 11 is the relevant part.)
Personally, I’m glad we won’t be seeing Russia in qualifiers for the World Cup. From the massive clamor demanding FIFA take this action, it seems many others are as well. But the process is troubling.
Rejecting Palestinian’s call to expel israel
Several years ago the Palestinians, aided by their Arab allies, made a concerted effort to have Israel excluded from world soccer (news coverage here). They claimed that excluding Israel from international sports would be a fitting means of pressuring Israel to end what they consider its violations of Palestinian human rights.
Israel, along with its supporters, protested that was wholly inappropriate. Citing the FIFA statute mandating neutrality in matters of politics, Israel claimed that sports should bring people together and politics has no place in soccer. Israel’s argument was that no matter what your view on the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, whether you believe Israel is the cause of Palestinian suffering and Israel’s leaders should be indicted and sent to the Hague or you think the Palestinians are to blame for their own problems and everything Israel has done is the very minimum required for self-defense, there is no way that should spill over to sports. Those are difficult questions that have to be resolved via negotiations and the peace process, and FIFA should stick to soccer and not take sides in political disputes.
Israel succeeded in fending off this challenge. Former Prime Minister Netanyahu argued persuasively that these types of sanctions would never end. If the Palestinians succeeded at expelling Israel, then every nation or group that saw itself as suffering human rights abuses would demand that their alleged oppressor be expelled from international sports as well. A soccer federation is not qualified to sort out all the world’s problems, and trying to do so would destroy the unifying benefit of sports.
That certainly makes sense. The FIFA council is a small group of individuals chosen by regional soccer federations. They are accountable to no one, and in fact are frequently caught up in scandals and ethical lapses themselves. They have no knowledge or expertise in human rights issues. So why should they be the world’s judges, determining which countries have human rights records worthy of participating in World Cup soccer and which do not?
But if that’s the case, we can’t have it both ways. If FIFA is supposed to stay out of politics, why are we demanding they take action against Russia and applauding their recent announcement?
One obvious distinction is immediacy. The Israel- Palestinian conflict has been going on for decades. The push to oust Israel from soccer was not so much a reaction to a particular event as yet another in a long list of tactics the Palestinians have attempted to use against Israel. It makes sense for FIFA to say soccer shouldn’t be weaponized and dragged into ongoing political disputes.
Russia’s invasion is an emergency happening right now. Urgent action is needed. Since there are valid reasons Western nations don’t want to send troops, and economic sanctions can take a long time to have an effect and are problematic in many other ways, kicking Russia out of sporting events seems like the least we can do. It’s a simple and obvious way of sending a message and making a statement.
While that distinction is important, it’s also subjective. Palestinians whose lives are being disrupted by Israeli policies may regard their issue as an immediate crisis. So too others around the world. Just because a human rights violation is more recent, or affects more people, doesn’t mean that other violations can be ignored or set aside.
Decision should be made by governments, not FIFA
Here’s a better solution. Let’s acknowledge that FIFA should not sanction soccer teams as a way of exerting political pressure against teams’ governments. That’s the job of other governments along with international organizations such as the United Nations that have been set up for that purpose.
Governments should prohibit their own national sports teams from playing against Russia. If enough governments did this, then the decision for FIFA would come naturally. For example, if Russia had qualified for the World Cup, it would be a matter of FIFA saying there are 32 teams in the tournament, and due to decisions of their home governments the vast majority of them will not play against Russia. Since Russia has no one to play against, they’re out.
This way the political onus is not on FIFA, which lacks any mandate to referee world affairs, but on governments which do. And it shields FIFA from being manipulated as a political weapon. If all it takes is a majority vote of the FIFA council to expel a country, that’s an attractive target for activists pursuing a political agenda. Lobby (or bribe) a few dozen FIFA council members hard enough and victory is there for the taking. But convincing dozens of countries all around the world to support a cause is far more daunting. Only the most flagrant and immediate violations, such as Russia’s attack on Ukraine, are likely to rally that type of backing.
Israel knows what it’s like to be singled out for boycotts and to have international organizations leveraged against it. We should insist on an end to that, but by putting the responsibility on governments we are still able to advocate that Russia be excluded from sports now.