Ukraine: FIFA thrashed in the game of appearances

by | Mar 1, 2022

“Always do the right thing,” said Da Mayor to Mookie in the 1989 film ‘Do the Right Thing.’ Mookie, played by the film’s director Spike Lee, answered: “I’ve got it. I’m gone.”

That should have been the extent of world football governing body Fifa’s thoughts on suspending Russia from its ranks, after Russian madman Vladimir Putin’s order, last Thursday, to invade and, judging by his warped interpretation of local geopolitical history, ultimately annex Ukraine. It was never going to be.

Fifa has had a busy week, given their mission-statement obligations to “respecting all internationally recognised human rights,” to “strive to promote the protection of these rights” and to “uphold the inherent dignity and equal rights of everyone affected by its activities” (which is everyone, if their “vision to make football truly global” has any meaning or sincerity).

These obligations required unequivocal condemnation of Putin’s order. But no such transparently pro-Russian (money) Fifa would ever do so. The “least they could do” was suspend Russia from world football. Yet even that was a tortuous trip, undertaken only after the sort of pressure they should have organised themselves.

Fifa’s first responses were effectively two-tenths of five-eighths of FA. At the latest meeting of its governing Council, held as Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border, Fifa suspended Kenya and Zimbabwe from all footballing activities because of government interference in football there. Yet they did not suspend Russia for government interference in Ukraine football, a clear consequences of said tank-rolling. And Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, spoke during his post-council meeting press conference of the action taken over the East African nations’ miscreancy. But of action taken against the invasion, there was nothing to report because there was none to report.

He did report that “Fifa condemns the use of force by Russia in Ukraine and any type of violence to resolve conflicts. We therefore call on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine and call on all parties to restore peace through constructive dialogue.” Well, all but the “Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine and” bit. He also said that Fifa “expresses hope of a rapid cessation of hostilities and for peace and justice in Ukraine.” Well, all but the “and justice” bit. And he added that “Fifa continues to express our solidarity to the people of Ukraine affected by this conflict.” Well, all but the “of Ukraine” bit. Mealy-mouthed w*nk, in short.

Two days later, Fifa said that the bureau of its council, Infantino and Fifa’s six Confederation presidents, were taking the sort of “action” which demands inverted commas around “action.” It re-iterated “its condemnation of the use of force by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine,” without explicitly condemning the invasion itself, and announced its unanimous decision to “address football-related matters…until further notice” thus:

“In line with recommendations from” their somehow even more corrupt cousins, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), they stated that “no international competition shall be played on the territory of Russia, with ‘home’ matches being played on neutral territory and without spectators,” the team would “participate in any competition under the name ‘Football Union of Russia’ and nor ‘Russia’ and “no flag or anthem of Russia will be used in matches where teams from the Football Union of Russia will participate.”

This begged a number of questions, the main one being WTF was THAT meant to achieve…and how? The announcement also spoke of possible further measures, “including a potential exclusion from competitions,” to be “applied in the near future should the situation not be improving rapidly.” As if the above had any remote prospect of even playing a small part in forcing that improvement.

You have to wonder who advised Fifa that “this’ll work”? After all, Putin somehow decided to undertake his beloved “military operations” despite the brutality of forcing Russia to compete as the “Russian Olympic Committee” at the just-finished Winter Olympics in Chinese capital Beijing. If name-calling really was an issue, Fifa might have been better served calling the Russian national football team the “Village People,” given the homophobic nature of the Russian state.

The announcement also referenced Fifa’s “strong belief” that “the sport movement should be united in its decisions on this topic and that sport should continue being a vector of peace, hope and justice.” Well, all but the “justice” bit. But even in the statement itself, Fifa had to admit that the metaphorical V-signs instantly being flicked in their general direction by other football authorities did not stand for “vector.”

They “had taken good note of the opinions expressed via social media” by the FAs of Poland, Russia’s actual World Cup play-off semi-final opponent on 24th March and the Czech Republic and Sweden, potential play-off final opponents on 29th March. However, those opinions were not the “unity in its decisions on this topic” Fifa were after, as they all translated as “we’re not playing Russia, whatever they’re called.”

Polish FA president, Cezary Kuleska called Fifa’s decision “unacceptable to us” as “we are not interested in the game of appearances.” A formal Polish FA letter to Fifa stated: “If Fifa’s Human Rights Policy is more than just words on a paper,” Russia needed expelling from the qualifiers. The Czech FA called it “not possible” to play Russia “even on a neutral venue.” And Swedish FA chairman, Karl Erik-Nilssen said that Sweden would not play Russia “regardless of what Fifa do,” as “the illegal and deeply unjust invasion” made “all football exchanges with Russia impossible.”

Fifa said that they were “already engaged in dialogue with all of these FAs” and would “remain in close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together,” as if the three FAs hadn’t already found, and unequivocally clarified, the ONLY appropriate and acceptable solution. Mealy-mouthed w*nk, in short.

In fairness, Fifa were not alone in last week’s “mealy-mouthed w*nkers” column. But even Eurovision Song Contest organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, showed speedier integrity. On Saturday, they banned Russia from this May’s event, in Turin, having said on Friday that Russia was still welcome, as it was a “non-political cultural event.” They changed their, er, tune, having “monitored the situation closely,” not least the global guffawing at the idea of Eurovision as “non-political,” especially given Russia and Ukraine’s political stances after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea territory.

Of course, the main part of me wants this article to be rapidly overtaken by the event of Russia’s withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory (including Crimea, in my personal opinion…still, one thing at a time, eh?). But, until then, we have to be satisfied that Fifa, eventually, crawled towards the right thing. For the future of football, however, that crawl should have stark implications.

Fifa, or more precisely, its leading “personalities,” have again been exposed as unfit for purpose. After Joseph “Sepp” Blatter’s 17-year presidency, Fifa has little to learn about mad territorial-grasping dictators. And Blatter used to boast that Fifa had more nation-state members than the United Nations. So, for Infantino and others to be this slow in recognising Ukraine’s sovereign integrity is unforgivable. President Blatter’s view of the war would have largely depended on whether a unified Russia and Ukraine would have cost him a presidential electoral vote.

It is naïve to believe that any sport, even the “truly global game” of football, has powers of persuasion over global policy-makers by itself, however lyrical football administrators such as Richard Scudamore used to wax about the “soft power” wielded by the English Premier League of which he was Chief Executive. But the impressive unity of FAs across Europe shows that it has some political power as part of wider campaigning strategies when so organised.

Fifa’s failure to so organise is a failure of its leadership. Their decision to suspend Russia was as right when it was made as it was when first urged, four days earlier. That decision should have been instant, as it was the dictionary definition of a no-brainer, especially with Fifa having reserves to offset the worst football financial consequences of that action.

And being the right thing to do was the most important factor of all. Because sometimes, doing the right thing IS that easy. Sadly, it is as true now as it was under president Blatter, his Brazilian autocratic predecessor Joao Havelange and Havelange’s English fuddy-duddy predecessor Sir Stanley Rous, that Fifa regards “doing the right thing” as the least important factor of all.