Czechs join Poland, Sweden in refusing to play Russia in World Cup qualifying


Russian President Vladimir Putin, second from left, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino, left, carry the FIFA World Cup trophy at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)

PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech Republic joined Poland and Sweden on Sunday in refusing to play Russia in the 2022 World Cup qualifying playoffs next month in response to that nation’s invasion of Ukraine.

The head of world champion France’s soccer federation also moved against the Russians, saying Sunday he favored excluding them from the competition.

Russia is scheduled to host Poland in Moscow for a playoff semifinal on March 24, with the winner due to host Sweden or the Czech Republic five days later. The winner on March 29 would advance to the World Cup being played in Qatar from Nov. 21-Dec. 18.

However, the Czech soccer federation said its executive committee “unanimously approved a decision that the Czech national team will not, in any case, play Russia.”

Officials in Poland and Sweden made the same decision Saturday — putting pressure on FIFA which is responsible for all World Cup qualifying games, including in Europe.

FIFA and its president Gianni Infantino have not taken a clear public position on Russia, the 2018 World Cup host, since the military invasion was launched Thursday.

The Czech federation said its head, Petr Fousek, will lead negotiations with FIFA and UEFA about its position.

“The Czech FA executive committee, staff members and players of the national team agreed it’s not possible to play against the Russian national team in the current situation, not even on the neutral venue,” the federation said in a statement. “We all want the war to end as soon as possible.”

FIFA’s current options include removing Russia from the World Cup or letting it advance to the finals tournament by accepting the withdrawal of the three other teams in its playoff bracket.

A strict reading of FIFA’s World Cup regulations would even make the Polish, Swedish and Czech federations liable to disciplinary action and having to pay fines and compensation.

In 1992, however, FIFA and UEFA removed Yugoslavia from its competitions following United Nations sanctions imposed when war broke out in the Balkans.

In France, the soccer federation president Noël Le Graët told the Le Parisien daily Sunday that he was leaning toward excluding Russia from the World Cup.

“The world of sport, and in particular football, cannot remain neutral,” said Le Graët, who sits on the ruling FIFA Council and has recently been a close ally of Infantino.

Any FIFA decision on Russia would likely come from its Bureau, chaired by Infantino and including the presidents of soccer’s six continental governing bodies, including UEFA’s Aleksander Ceferin.

UEFA on Friday pulled the 2022 Champions League final from St. Petersburg, moving it to Paris, and said Russian and Ukrainian teams in its competitions must play home games in neutral countries. UEFA allowed Spartak Moscow to continue playing in the second-tier Europa League’s round of 16.

As the attack of Ukraine entered a fourth day on Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin temporarily lost his most senior official position in world sports. The International Judo Federation cited “the ongoing war conflict in Ukraine” for suspending Putin’s honorary president status.

The Russian president is a keen judoka and attended the sport at the 2012 London Olympics.

In Putin’s other favorite sport, ice hockey, Latvian club Dinamo Riga withdrew Sunday from the Russian-owned and run Kontinental Hockey League citing the “military and humanitarian crisis.”

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