FIFA could have led the way. Instead, it had to be shamed into doing the right thing.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino. (Patrick B. Kraemer/Keystone via AP)

What should have been a slam dunk on a clear breakaway for FIFA turned out to be an embarrassing miss for world soccer’s governing body. 

FIFA has an infamous reputation for routinely getting things wrong by failing to take a moralled and principled stance on the important issues of the day that extend beyond what happens on the pitch.  

Still, it was rather disappointing that FIFA had to be shamed into kicking Russia out of World Cup qualifying for this year’s tournament in Qatar in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reversing course a mere 24 hours after its initial series of sanctions -- if you can even call them that -- was met with worldwide ridicule and condemnation.  

To recap, the winner of the Russia-Poland playoff on March 24 is slated to host Sweden or the Czech Republic on March 29 to decide who advances to the World Cup in Qatar. FIFA originally ruled on Sunday that the games involving Russia would still take place at neutral venues, and that the Russians would be allowed to compete, albeit without their flag or national anthem, and under the name of their federation: the Football Union of Russia. 

If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because FIFA took the coward’s way out and simply adopted the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling that was issued before the invasion of Ukraine in response to Russia’s cover-up of the investigation into state-sponsored doping that forced the country to compete at the last two Olympics as the “Russian Olympic Committee” team. Rather than taking a firm stance, FIFA opted to simply go with the flow, thus squandering a chance to shed its well-earned reputation as a bumbling bureaucracy by doing the right thing. 

FIFA’s copycat approach didn’t sit well with the Polish soccer officials, who unequivocally said their team refused to play Russia in the World Cup playoff. The Swedish soccer federation publicly stated it was not satisfied with FIFA’s decisions, while the Czechs aligned with the Polish and said they wouldn’t play the Russians, either. 

On Monday, after receiving a slew of other stinging rebukes and pressure from around the sports world, FIFA reversed course and issued a joint statement with UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, that all Russian pro clubs and national teams were suspended from participation in international competitions until further notice. 

This embarrassing turnabout from FIFA means Russia could be out of the World Cup unless changes occur in the Ukraine situation before the game against Poland on March 24. The suspension also jeopardizes Russia’s involvement in this summer’s European women's championship tournament in England, while Spartak Moscow has been kicked out of this season’s UEFA Europa League. 

FIFA’s deliberate feet-dragging over the Russian invasion is even more disgraceful in light of the swift actions taken by other sports bodies. The 2022 Formula One season was scheduled to stop in Sochi in late September for the Russian Grand Prix, which meant the auto racing circuit’s top officials had plenty of time to delay any decision about cancelling the event. Instead, F1 decided to pull the event from its calendar shortly after Russian soldiers entered Ukraine. Likewise, UEFA wasted no time in moving the May 28 Champions League final slated to be hosted by St Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, to Paris. 

On the fifth day of Russia's invasion, here's how the sports world responded
Since Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 23, sports federations, as well as athletes, have weighed in on the conflict. Here's what you need to know about what was said and enacted on Monday, the fifth day of the war.

• FIFA and UEFA announced that they have suspended all Russian teams from international competition in response to the invasion, changing course after their initial sanctions against the country and its allies were widely chastised as being insufficient.

• Canada Soccer said it would not compete at any level against Russia "until sovereignty and territorial integrity are restored" in Ukraine.

• The International Olympic Committee "strongly urged" sports federations and event organizers to not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials in international competitions, in a decisive recommendation that comes as the 2022 Paralympic Games are set to begin.

• Wayne Gretzky lamented the human toll of the ongoing crisis while zeroing in on what Edmonton, the host of the upcoming world juniors tournament, can do to make a difference.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino talks a very good game. But if his response to the Russia-Ukraine war proves anything, it’s that he’s a mealy-mouthed weasel. In 2016, FIFA elected Infantino, a Swiss-Italian soccer administrator, as its new president in an attempt to repair the damage to its reputation suffered under Infantino’s disgraced and corrupt predecessor, Sepp Blatter. 

 “FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis. But those times are over… We now enter a new era. We’ll restore the image of FIFA,” Infantino said after his election victory.  

Infantino’s words turned out to be nothing more than an empty promise espoused by a shyster wearing an expensive suit. If anything, it’s been business as usual for FIFA with Infantino at the helm, with unabashed hypocrisy and closed-door-dealing chicanery still ruling the day. 

Two years after his election, Infantino and Putin were joined at the hip during the 2018 World Cup staged in Russia. Putin was so enamoured with the FIFA president that he invited his new bosom buddy back to Moscow seven months later to bestow upon him a special Order of Friendship medal.  

“A big honour” was how Infantino described the award at the time. But last week, Infantino dodged questions about whether he planned on returning the medal to Putin in light of the invasion of Ukraine. 

“The situation is obviously very tragic and worrying. We are constantly reflecting on the role of sport, particularly the role of sport in trying to bring people together in a peaceful environment,” said Infantino, bending himself into pretzel-like knots to avoid any criticism of Putin. 

Soccer is the global game, the world’s most popular sport, and is played by more people around the planet than any other sport, and one of FIFA’s public key missions purports to be "to globalize, popularize and democratize [soccer] for the benefit of the entire world.” 

As such, FIFA should be out front of the pack as a bold global leader in the world of sports, using its considerable influence to let its voice be heard. Instead, its bungling of the Russian situation underlines why it continues to be one of the most mistrusted sports bodies in the world.    

About the author: John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.

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