Soccer united against Putin -- 10 years too late

The soccer world agreed at the weekend that war is a terrible thing, and Russia's illegal and murderous invasion of Ukraine must be condemned by all decent nations and people. It's good to know that the possibly insane Russian dictator Vladimir Putin  has finally crossed the line. Up until last week, soccer had been remarkably lenient with the conflict-happy, dissent-crushing autocrat.

It's not yet four years since Russia staged the 2018 World Cup. A small handful of us refused to watch, but we were very much in the minority. FIFA President Gianni Infantino — like Putin, an authoritarian with a penchant for holding on to power by any means possible  — enjoyed the tournament so much that in Putin's presence he gushed at the conclusion of the 2018 tournament: "Today I am a happy man. As far as I am concerned, we all fell in love with Russia. And I am sure in four years we will fall in love with Qatar. It is football. It is passion. It is emotions. It is love. It is family. It is unity. And I am sure that this incredibly energetic and positive impact that football had in Russia, it will have in Qatar in four years."

I'm not sure who "we all" referred to here. I doubt it was the huge number of civilians killed in Syria when Putin intervened in that country's civil war in 2015 to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights between September 2015 and February 2016 alone, Russian air strikes aimed at neutralizing opposition to the Syrian dictator killed at least 1,700 civilians, including 200 children. Other human rights organizations set the number even higher.

I doubt that "we all" included those living in the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea opposed to Russia's illegal annexation of their region by Putin just days after he'd hosted that festival of trans-national love and understanding, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Or those who have died at the hands of pro-Russian, Kremlin-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — lest we forget, the war between Russia and Ukraine did not start last week, it has been going on for the past eight years with an estimated 10,000 soldiers and civilians killed. It was going on all the way through Infantino's Russian World Cup of love, family and unity.

I doubt too that "we all" includes the thousands of Russian citizens arrested and imprisoned for opposing Putin's government during peaceful demonstrations, or the assassination of dissidents, political opponents and investigative journalists I doubt it includes the members of Russia's LGBTQ+ community, forced into hiding and denial by the government's homophobic legislation. Not to mention war crimes by Russian military forces documented by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch during conflicts in Chechnya and the Georgian region of South Ossetia — all of which happened with good notice several years ahead of Infantino's sweet love affair with Mother Russia.

"Russia's soccer players and fans are not responsible for the war in Ukraine," said Bayern Munich's Polish striker Robert Lewandowski at the weekend, wearing a captain's armband in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. "But we can't pretend that nothing's happened." Why not? We've been pretending for the last 10 years at the very least. Now, somehow, Putin has gone too far. Who knew he was such a nasty, volatile character?

Lewandowski's Poland has announced that it will refuse to play Russia in a World Cup playoff game in late March. Other potential opponents for Russia in the subsequent knockout round  — Sweden and the Czech Republic  — have said likewise. FIFA initially reacted by stating that Russia would have to play the games on neutral territory under the name Football Union of Russia. Clearly, Infantino was not just once again out of tune with the majority of the world, but was still besotted with all his loving, unifying, familial Moscow friends. Then today, after tuning in to world opinion, FIFA was forced to do the right thing and suspended all Russian clubs and national teams from all FIFA and UEFA competitions. 

In a way, it would have made perfect sense for the 'Football Union of Russia' to have been handed free passage to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which is also an authoritarian state that pays mere lip service to human rights, and only when it thinks that someone might be looking. "We will see the best World Cup ever ... in Qatar," Infantino purred last year. "That's why I'm also confident that everyone who will come to Qatar will come to the whole Gulf region — because you can stay a few days here, a few days there — as well. They will witness a welcoming place and a great World Cup." What, even if you're gay or you have an Israeli passport?

The Olympic movement has never lived down the shame of allowing Adolf Hitler's Nazi state to host the 1936 Olympics. There's a long history of evil, unbalanced and genocidal rulers using sports to present a happy, smiling cooperative face to the world at large while they're busy persecuting and murdering fellow humans behind locked doors. For some reason, we always want to believe that everything's fine, and we're willing to turn a blind eye so that we can forget about torture, oppression and murder and just enjoy a jolly good sporting contest.

Unfortunately, soccer's show of solidarity against the Russian invasion of Ukraine has come about a decade too late for those whose cities are being bombed, for the people who are dying and being maimed today and will continue to die and be maimed tomorrow. Sport can not delude itself that it exists in an isolated, apolitical bubble. When we watch our national team take to the field in Qatar, we will also be endorsing the rank exploitation and easily avoidable deaths of thousands of construction workers since Qatar was awarded the World Cup.

Or maybe we just won't think about it. Because Qatar won't yet have crossed the Putin Line. Its misdeeds won't be as clearly visible as the Russian cruise missiles lighting up Kyiv's night skies and killing its people. Or perhaps because in the meantime a psychopathic dictator — helped to stay in power by mediocre, lickspittle functionaries like Infantino or International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach — activated a nuclear "deterrent," and none of us will be left to watch the tournament at all. No more family. No more unity. No more love.

Photo: Gianni Infantino and Vladimir Putin at the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow. (by Celso Bayo/ISI Photos)

20 comments about "Soccer united against Putin -- 10 years too late".
  1. Santiago 1314, February 28, 2022 at 4:38 p.m.

    Is this our; Charleton Heston Moment.???
    "Damn You! Good Damn you all to Hell.!!!"

  2. beautiful game replied, March 1, 2022 at 9:34 p.m.

    Don Infantino's ousting Russia from WC 2022 should not be regarded as moral act by the FIFA god-father. He in fact feared the weight of the international soccer community to have made such an unprerdicatble decision in short time. All megalomaniacs like Don Giani, Putin and their narcissistic brothers and sister have one thing in common, and that is, they are well versed in the practice of denial, deceit and disinformation. Thank you Ian for this editorial and may it open the eyes for those that have a difficult time to call a spade a spade.

  3. Victor Mathseon, February 28, 2022 at 6:18 p.m.

    This article couldn't be more right. About everything.

  4. Frank Coffey replied, February 28, 2022 at 6:44 p.m.

    Bravo, Ian. Again. 

  5. Dan Donovan, February 28, 2022 at 6:22 p.m.

    I had to go back to the top to see who wrote this. This is one of the best pieces I have ever read in Soccer America (and I am freinds with Dan Woog!). Spot on in its assessment. I hope the soccer world continues to do the right thing. Sadly, though FIFA was forced into their stance. Removing the World Cup from Qatar should be next. Let's strive to keep this sport beautiful in every way.

  6. Dan Woog replied, February 28, 2022 at 7:19 p.m.

    Amen, Dan Donovan. Ian was on fire. He nailed it. This is no time for equivocating. And not for nothing, but when Switzerland takes such a strong stand against you, you know you've really behaved badly.

  7. Oswald Dwyer, February 28, 2022 at 6:53 p.m.

    Thats the way to say the truth as we all see it and have seen it happening over the years, well done Mr. Plenderleith and thank you. I stand with Ukraine and against all war mongering and killing of innocent people.

  8. Kevin Sims, February 28, 2022 at 8:33 p.m.

    Exactly. Precisely. Absolutely.

  9. Wooden Ships, February 28, 2022 at 9:12 p.m.

    Good article, but I must add that it was high time Germany got off the fence. I certainly will not absolve the U.S. under 8 years of Obama and now Biden. Leadership does matter. 

  10. Ben Myers replied, February 28, 2022 at 11:14 p.m.

    Let's not forget four years of a president saying sweet and admiring words about Putin, and isolating this country from NATO and the EU, devaluing them.  Maybe this had some influence on Putin's decision to invade the rest of the Ukraine?  Still, US foreign policy has been a shambles for decades now, no matter which party had the upper hand.

  11. Santiago 1314 replied, March 1, 2022 at 6:33 a.m.

    Ben; Because Facts Matter;
    "NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg thanked US President Donald Trump for his strong leadership and commitment to the Alliance in a meeting at the White House on Thursday (14 November 2019). Mr. Stoltenberg highlighted rising defence investment across European Allies and Canada, amounting to more than $100 billion extra in recent years,.."(NATO Website 11/19/19)
    "The Trump administration has approved the $39 million sale of defensive lethal weapons to Ukraine, according to two U.S. officials and another source familiar with the plan."(ABC News 10/11/19)
    "Even before Andrzej Duda arrived, the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, told TVN24 in Poland that the U.S. will send another 1,000 troops to Poland — over and above the 1,000 declared last year."(Military Times 6/24/20)
    "President Donald Trump has signed a law that will impose sanctions on any firm that helps Russia's state-owned gas company, Gazprom, finish a pipeline into the European Union." (BBC 12/21/19)
    (" response to Russia's alleged use of a nerve agent to poison a former Russian spy living in the United Kingdom.
    President Donald Trump on Monday ordered the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats the US identified as intelligence agents and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle,..."(CNN 3/26/18)


  12. James Madison, February 28, 2022 at 11:24 p.m.

    I haven't always agreed with ian, but he's spot on this time.  Putin's rage has obliterated his intelligence and returned Russia to the times of Stalin.  I grieve both for Ukraine and for thos in Russia who oppose Putin's policies.

  13. Santiago 1314 replied, March 1, 2022 at 6:38 a.m.

    Actually; Putin is a Delusional Tsarist... You need to go back 300 years to Understand what he is trying to Recreate.... A Slavic, Russian Orthodox Empire.!!!...Communist don't Believe/Promote  "The Church".

  14. R2 Dad, March 1, 2022 at 9:29 a.m.

    Excellent column, Ian. It may be beyond the scope of this magazine to address the mental health of heads of state, but I wonder if our financial sanctions leave few choices (in Putin's addled mind) to back down and still remain in power. Desperate rulers do desperate things. Russian regime change should not be the goal--getting Russian soldiers out of Ukraine is the goal. Russians will deal with Putin in their own good time.

  15. Kenneth Osgood, March 1, 2022 at 12:36 p.m.

    Unfortunately, the the so-called leaders of the sports world are typically followers when it comes the larger world. Infantino's fanboying of Putin is just a relevant example, as is Infantino's about face when he figured out that he might be left behind. 

  16. oswaldo rodriguez, March 1, 2022 at 1:25 p.m.

    Let's keep out of Geo-politics.
    Let's forget many nations still oppress women, kill homosexuals ( Iran, Qatar and Saudi Arabia), oppress other ethic minorities (China and Ukrain), steal from citizen bank accounts (oh Canada), put it's citizens in camps (Australia and China), practice slaery  (Qatar and China), beat-on the press and citizens (oh Canada, France, Austria and Australia).  Please let's avoid these trends.

  17. Bill Riviere, March 1, 2022 at 4:17 p.m.

    Ian, you said it better,  more accurately and more succinctly than anything I've read that's been published or said by anyone anywhere re this situation.  Congratulations and thank you!

    Let's hope that some drone catches Putin looking the wrong way and does the world a favor soon.  There are too many gutless politicians/leaders of countries, in my opinion, to stop him the way it needs to be done.  Always too little, too late and plenty of excuses.

    God bless the Ukranian people.  Their courage and patriotism is an outstanding example for the world.  My prayers are with them.

  18. Charles Davenport, March 1, 2022 at 5:31 p.m.

    Thanks for mentioning the Qatar Mundial...Watching Olympics and Soccer in Putinland was bad enough. I will not be watching the finals being played on top, perhaps literally, of construction workers' bodies.

  19. Ian Plenderleith, March 2, 2022 at 5:28 a.m.

    Correction - link regarding Qatar ban on Israeli citizens is out of date. Since 2020, Israeli citizens may apply for a visa to enter Qatar:

    Apologies for the error.

  20. Santiago 1314 replied, March 2, 2022 at 6:52 p.m.

    It was Hard to Find... I tried to find it the other day, to Prove You wrong, but I Never found this either.???
    I imagine they are trying to Suppress it on the Internet.
    FIFA Mandates that in order to hold a World Cup, you must Let ALL Visitors In.
    I imagine there will be an Exclusion Exception for Russians and BeloRussians this time around.

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