On the heels of national soccer federations pledging to protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by boycotting matches with Russian teams, FIFA and UEFA on Monday indefinitely banned Russian national and club teams from international play.
The ban, which will deny the Russian men’s team an opportunity to qualify for November’s 2022 World Cup, could be challenged before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which recently sided with Russia in the doping/eligibility dispute involving Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
In a joint FIFA-UEFA statement, the two organizations said the sport “is fully united here and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine.” The statement added an expression for “hope that the situation in Ukraine will improve significantly and rapidly so that football can again be a vector for unity and peace amongst people.”
As of Sunday, FIFA had not planned to ban Russia. Instead, it preferred less severe measures, including a ban on Russia’s anthem and prohibiting the country from hosting international matches. But the situation changed over the last 24 hours. The Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden national teams signaled they would not play Russia in the upcoming World Cup playoff. Also, the International Olympic Committee urged sports governing bodies to deny participation by Russian athletes and officials.
Although an extraordinary penalty, a FIFA ban of a country’s teams over that country’s governmental activities is not unprecedented.
FIFA banned South Africa in 1974 and Rhodesia in 1970 partly over those countries’ white supremacist laws and policies. Thirty years ago, FIFA banned the Yugoslavian federation for human rights violations and war crimes that occurred during the Balkan War. FIFA has also issued national bans for competition or team related matters. For instance, in 1988, FIFA suspended the Mexican Federation of Association Football for using over-age players on its youth championship team. Last year, FIFA banned Chad over interference by government officials with the team and lifted the ban six months later.
FIFA statutes, which govern the legal relationship between member countries and FIFA, authorize FIFA to cite governmental activities as lawful grounds to ban a country. The statutes ban “discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people” on account of national origin and other demographic categories. Member associations are also expected to engage in good governance and be independent of political interference.
As a FIFA member, Russia can appeal the suspension to CAS, an arbitrational body empowered by FIFA statutes to oversee legal challenges. The appeal would be heard by a three-person panel.
Russia could argue that nowhere in the FIFA statutes is there language that specifically authorizes a ban for military action or foreign policy. Russia might emphasize that its national teams, while overseen by government entities, have no suasion over those matters. Russia could further maintain that its teams have long adhered to sports-related rules that FIFA doesn’t contest—FIFA is only objecting to military action and foreign policy. In addition, Russia might insist that FIFA banning a team over the politics of its country is itself a form of discrimination or political interference.
Sportico interviewed Paul Greene, the founder of Global Sports Advocates, who has represented athletes from more than 50 countries and more than 50 sports in matters before CAS and other tribunals.
“FIFA was under enormous pressure,” Greene opined, and “backpeddled from its position on Sunday, when it refused to endorse a ban. FIFA was stuck in a corner and had to act decisively.”
Greene believes Russia will probably appeal but is skeptical of its chances.
The Russian Football Union, Greene predicts, “will argue that it is not the government, and it didn’t attack Ukraine, but FIFA statutes make clear that FIFA has wide discretion in suspending members.”
He adds, “FIFA did not expel Russia, which would have a higher bar.”
Green believes “there is enough authority under FIFA rules for a CAS panel to uphold the suspension. The Russian Federation will face a huge uphill battle in appealing to CAS.”