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FIFA’s Politicized Apolitical Stance on Russia’s World Cup

by Ross Fadner

On Wednesday, the AP reported that Arizona Republican John McCain and 12 other U.S. Senators asked FIFA to pull the 2018 World Cup from Russia due to its military intervention in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. The group told FIFA President Sepp Blatter in a letter that letting Russia host the event “inappropriately bolsters the prestige” of President Vladimir Putin’s regime in addition to providing “economic relief” to the country at a time when its actions “should be condemned.”

The report also noted that more than 40 countries, including close to half of the participants in last year’s World Cup in Brazil, have placed sanctions on Russia as a result of its military actions in the disputed regions, which used to belong to Ukraine.

Russia, meanwhile, is said to be threatening nuclear action over NATO’s involvement in supporting Ukraine, according to other reports—although the Kremlin has denied these claims.

Last month, Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko urged the West’s allies to boycott the 2018 tournament altogether, although his call received a lukewarm response.

So FIFA finds itself in a tough spot. Yet Blatter & co remain steadfast in their determination not to mix sport and politics—a stance that FIFA-watchers will be familiar with.

In response to the AP story, FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fischer rejected the notion that it makes sense to strip Russia of the World Cup: “History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems,” she wrote Wednesday in an email, while adding that the World Cup “can be a powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments, helping to bring positive social developments.”

Earlier this month, Blatter took a similar stance when asked to respond to recent pressure to move the tournament. “The World Cup in Russia will be able to stabilize all this situation that is in this region of Europe,” he said.

At least the message — that the World Cup cannot be used as a political instrument and its distance from politics will somehow will help foster peace across the world — is consistent. If only FIFA’s actions were commensurate with what it tries to stand for.

The Economist, in its review of Michael Zimbalist’s book Circus Maximus, published earlier this year, notes that the awarding of mega-events like the World Cup and Olympics has in recent years moved firmly in the direction of autocratic and non-democratic countries. Perhaps the democratic world is becoming wise to the murky economic benefits of hosting these events, or maybe it’s because FIFA has more in common with the likes of Russia — that is, crooked accounting, vote-rigging, bribery and document-destroying — than the West?

Off The Post would argue that when much of the free world turns against a regime like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, FIFA is absolutely taking a political stance by allowing it to host what is by far the world’s most globally significant event. And maintaining the stance that sports and politics should not mix in a sport filled with countless examples of exactly that is at best irresponsible and at worst completely negligent.

FIFA stands for fair play on the field. It should also stand for fair play off it. Instead, soccer’s world governing body allows Russia to come out of its investigation into the bidding process for the awarding of the 2018 tournament smelling like a rose because someone ordered all the documents about that process to be destroyed.

If that’s the way FIFA operates, then soccer fans better get used to Blatter & co cozying up to autocratic regimes, because, well, birds of a feather…

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