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FIFA Ban Russia, But Ukraine Also Have World Cup Hopes

FIFA and UEFA have suspended Russian clubs and the Russian national team from all competitions

That means Russia won’t be playing against Poland, nor potentially against Sweden or Czech Republic, in the March international break.

Those games were part of UEFA’s qualification process for Qatar 2022, but there are several other qualification matches scheduled across Europe, including Scotland’s match against Ukraine.

Ukraine reached the quarterfinals of Euro 2020. They finished second in a tough World Cup 2022 qualification group, which included world champions France, whom they drew against twice. And before the events of the last week, it would have been reasonable to expect Ukraine to not only reach the World Cup, but to do quite well at Qatar 2022.

Ukraine’s match against Scotland on March 24 is yet to be suspended. Tickets for the match have even sold out. But unless there is a ceasefire soon, there’s no way it can realistically take place on that date.

When Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Everton’s Vitaliy Mykolenko hugged on the pitch last weekend, that image was broadcast around the world. But the majority of Ukraine’s national team don’t play in the Premier League. Most of them play in Ukraine, mainly for either Dynamo Kyiv or Shakhtar Donetsk.

Nine players from the Ukraine team that played in November, including key midfielders Serhiy Sydorchuk and Mykola Shaparenko, were from Dynamo Kyiv,

Shakhtar Donetsk, who provided four members of the most recent national team squad, were forced out of their home stadium in 2014 due to conflict in the Donbas region, and are currently based in Kyiv. Before that, they were known as a club that brought through some of the best Brazilian talent, and were mainstays of European competitions, winning the UEFA Cup in 2009.

There’s been little news of those domestic players’ fates. All soccer in Ukraine was suspended on February 24, and many of the Ukrainian national team are likely still in Kyiv.

Shakhtar Donetsk defender Sergey Kryvtsov wrote on social media that “It is very scary to wake up… from the eerie sound of a projectile outside the window!”

Dynamo Kyiv midfielder Viktor Tsygankov usually posts pictures of his pet dog on Instagram. A recent post showed rescuers helping people from a bombed apartment building.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino says “we also aspire to improve the state of sport and society as a result through football.” FIFA acted late to ban Russia, and there will be some people who disagree with FIFA’s decision, asking why they didn’t ban other countries for invasions in the past. Keep politics out of sport. Except, politics is already deeply involved in sport.

The Olympics almost always runs at a loss, so the countries that want to host it do so for political reasons, not always bad reasons, but political nonetheless. Some countries use sports to improve their image. This sportswashing means that people remember Russia 2018 and have a positive view of the country. Even at the time of writing, if you click on the FIFA website’s commercial page, you get a picture of a crowd watching Uruguay vs Russia on a big screen in a fan zone in Moscow.

UEFA and German soccer club Schalke have cancelled their sponsorship deals with Russian energy giant Gazprom. Sports business and geopolitics professor Simon Chadwick has called those sponsorships a “geopolitical tool”, used by Moscow to help get new pipelines to Germany that avoid Poland and Ukraine, denying those countries any transit fees or ability to stop the flow of gas from Russia to Germany, and the flow of money from Germany to Russia.

Russia isn’t alone in such sponsorships. There are many other deals that UEFA and FIFA have done that have helped improve the image of nation states. With soccer clubs run like businesses, it is hardly surprising they accept such deals. But with FIFA, if it genuinely is trying to use soccer to make the world a better place, then perhaps it should consider whether any sponsors it might take could have the opposite effect.

FIFA and UEFA made a big decision this week to ban Russia from competing. Now FIFA has another decision to make over what to do if Ukraine are unable to play their games in March.

In the long-term, FIFA has to make another decision about its future direction, and whether it will take any sponsorship that comes its way or whether it will put checks in place to try to ensure that states can’t use FIFA for political means that go against its aspirations to “improve the state of sport and society.”