Fifa and Uefa must abandon cowardly neutrality to be on right side of history

The governing bodies have often struggled to deal with the political aspects of football, writes Laura Lawrence.

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While they like to claim neutrality, their attempts to sanction whilst simultaneously overlooking certain human rights violations makes them appear at best confused and at worst complicit.

The governing bodies’ approach to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been to tiptoe through the cashflow and test the optics. The pressure came from international teams refusing to play against Russia. This started with Russia’s prospective World Cup play-off opponents Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, before being echoed by much of the footballing world.

First, Ufa removed the Champions League Final from St Petersburg.

When it became clear that wasn’t enough, their next step was to adopt the International Olympic Committee’s approach of not allowing athletes to compete as Russia, but as the Football Union of Russia. No flag or anthem and fixtures played at neutral venues but still the right to compete. As the Winter Olympics in Beijing proved, this is no deterrent. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) had the second largest medal haul. However, the other teams refused to lift their boycott on playing Russia.

Finally on Monday evening, all Russian teams were suspended from club and international competitions. Spartak Moscow can no longer participate in the Champions League, the Russian women’s national team will not be playing their Euros fixtures at Wigan & Leigh in the summer and the men’s World Cup journey has come to an abrupt halt.

Fifa and Uefa can’t untangle themselves from geopolitics no matter how badly they try. The president of the Russian FA is also the chairman of the board at Gazprom, the prominent state gas supplier and sponsor of international football tournaments. The president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, was personally awarded the Russian state medal, the Order of Friendship, by president Putin following the 2018 World Cup.

Neutrality is doing nothing. This wasn’t a ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ situation. Even Switzerland has adopted EU sanctions against Russia’s central bank and they stayed neutral during both World Wars! It took football’s governing bodies three attempts to properly sanction Russia, while the bastion of neutrality did it without testing the optics.

We’ve seen Uefa flail in dealing with Hungary’s stance on gay rights during the Euros. Their indifference can be seen with Qatar and the absence of words when immigrant workers die to build the infrastructure for a World Cup. Fifa’s neutrality was also evident when the issues of clubs playing in the occupied West Bank were raised. Their lines of being impartial are so wavy they could have been drawn by a gerrymandering government official. Hopefully, the football authorities will one day abandon this cowardly neutrality and be able to make the right decisions without being cowed into them. It’s difficult to see that happening any time soon.

Follow Laura on Twitter @YICETOR

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