Russia going to war finally lifts football’s veil over politics and brings much-needed clarity


It was a situation the game had never seen before, but one that led to a clarity it so lacked.

Minutes after FIFA announced the ridiculous plan for Russia to enter the World Cup play-offs without flags or symbols, their next opponents simply walked through it.

Polish FA chief Cezary Kulesza called him for what he was.

“In a war situation in Ukraine,” he said, “we are not interested in playing a simulation game.”

You couldn’t get a better description of the world of elite football. A possible effect of this shameful war is that these claims are eradicated.

The situation is far too serious for anyone to have time to dwell on football’s self-justified nonsense. How else to describe some of the scenes in the game in recent days?

FIFA’s U-turn, finally banishing Russia, said a lot.

Before that, Roman Abramovich was getting out of the game, at least in appearance. For years, the Chelsea owner’s legal team has used the law to suppress even speculation about his relationship with the Russian state and Vladimir Putin.

The war prompted British Labor MP Chris Bryant to blow it all up and use parliamentary privilege to bring the matter out into the open, calling for sanctions. The situation escalated to the point that Abramovich pulled out of Chelsea, with much speculation about what happened next. The club insists there is no reason to sanction him and he has won a series of legal apologies from the media over alleged links to Putin.

This “non-political” pretense, however, has sparked in-game astonishment over claims that Abramovich is now in a position to try to broker peace talks with Ukraine and Russia.

Before that, there was the required double-think at Goodison Park. The uplifting heartfelt gestures of the players, staff and supporters of Everton and Manchester City have been unfairly and sadly undermined by everything around them.

There have been numerous advertisements for USM, a company headed by influential club investor Alisher Usmanov. He was also appointed to the House of Commons by Dame Margaret Hodge as someone the British government should sanction. Meanwhile, Manchester City was draped in attire promoting many of the business interests of the United Arab Emirates, the state in which their named owner, Sheikh Mansour, is a prominent member of the Abu Dhabi royal family.

Earlier today, the same state – of which Abu Dhabi is by far the most powerful influence – took the widely criticized decision to abstain at the United Nations Security Council, refusing to back the US resolution against Russia. .

In another world, the United Arab Emirates could face the same scrutiny. They have spent the past few years waging a war in Yemen which remains an even worse humanitarian catastrophe than Ukraine. Their main allies are Saudi Arabia, owners of Newcastle United.

We have another simulation game there, of course, after the takeover was justified by the absurd idea that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, is in sort of a separate entity. Needless to say, no real expert in the field gives any credence to this.

You can apply similar logic to the residual notion that City is just the private indulgence of a wealthy royal. All of Mansour’s wealth is actually the wealth of an absolute monarchy, with no separation between them. The Crown Prince, Mohamed Bin Zayed, can appropriate his younger brother’s investment funds and has done so once. Some of Bin Zayed’s inner circle, such as Khaldoon Mubarak and Simon Pearce, hold important positions within the club.

A growing problem for the game is that everyone outside is now more susceptible to these issues. This raises more questions.

It supports all previous criticism of “sportswashing” states. This war represents one of the main reasons why the critical media raised these discussions in the first place. It is simply untrue that clubs are affected by such problems. It is wrong that the warmth towards Oleksandr Zinchenko is complicated by such considerations. Yet it is the reality that can no longer be avoided.

That’s what the clubs were for.

One of the reasons we don’t talk about the war in Yemen as much as we do in Ukraine is because states like the UAE have been so successful at integrating with the west. You just have to look at so many vacations in Dubai. The sports wash is part of the same process and smoothes it out.

This is also why it is so wrong to give competitions to states like China, Qatar and – of course – Russia. The idea that sport will help them improve is another pretext, a fantasy. It just helps their sports washing goals.

We couldn’t escape reality forever. We are at the point where the game could not go beyond, where these realities had to impose themselves.

Football was simply too greedy and self-satisfied to concern itself with such issues. The money was too big, the glamor was too big. This allowed the pretenses to get too big. He credulously slept in a situation where he is entangled in geopolitics and is now out of his depth, overtaken by events.

It is possible that we have reached a point where this is no longer viable, where the many infrastructure problems of football have been exposed. There is a new clarity so fleeting.

This is what the responses of federations like Poland represent, essentially forcing UEFA and FIFA to act.

“Football people are so used to being able to totally control things that when they have to deal with a real world problem that they can’t control, they are bewildered,” said a senior British source at Westminster who has worked with the game. . “They always try to come up with a ‘smart’ solution which is totally unsustainable and ends up making them feel like they’ve been dragged kicking and screaming.”

You could say the same about the attempt by some in football to simply use the word “peace” in absolutely nothing of the statements about the invasion of Ukraine. It seemed like they were more concerned with being seen doing the right thing than actually doing it; in pretense.

FIFA’s initial statement on Russia was an example of this.

After a two-day radio silence, the game’s governing body came up with a wrong answer that almost everyone had predicted, which only took a few minutes to fall apart. That says a lot that the turnaround only took one more day.

It wasn’t quite “kicking and screaming”, to give FIFA and the federations their due, but it did break some pretense.

It has been reported that a core of European countries – and in particular Poland, led by Juventus legend Zbigniew Boniek – were at the heart of this.

A common counterpoint has been where the line should be drawn. Some in the game have argued that similar reasoning should be applied to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, as well as the United States and Britain, given the war in Iraq. , others insisting that it could just lead to a precedent where everyone is constantly pointing fingers. all the others.

These are actually healthy discussions to have, and football needs to reach a point where it can actually organize these conversations in an honest way rather than constantly trying to pretend that politics doesn’t interfere.

The last few days have shattered that idea. Much of this is due to the extreme end of the Russian invasion, both in proximity and in shock. It elicited a rare emotion, which guided a logic that made it a more immediate issue than anything else.

To accompany the invasion, Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons, so it is a question of sanctioning them to such a degree that war is unsustainable among his own population. This would prevent further bloodshed, and sport is a powerful cultural weapon in this regard.

He was extremely influential with apartheid South Africa, which provides an important precedent.

Another aspect of this for now is that it has brought out a genuine goodness in people and the game, and an antidote to such cynicism. The uplifting episode around Benfica’s Roman Yaremchuk was a glorious illustration of humanity, in a time of so much death.

Rather than this energy extending only to Russia, it should provoke these broader debates. Football must accept that it is intimately linked to politics and judge everything on a case-by-case basis.

You have to start seeing things clearly. That won’t happen, of course. There is always another form of money coming in. Cryptocurrency businesses and private equity firms are already circling.

This is because the game’s little security bubble has burst. The pretense game has been reversed.

If the first casualty of war is the truth, it sadly shows just how much deception there is in football that it took conflict to bring some clarity.


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