If you needed further evidence that sport mirrors politics — especially international sport and, even more specifically, international football — then Russia is a case in point.
In February 2022, they were suspended by both FIFA and UEFA from their competitions following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That meant no World Cup in Qatar and after the ban was extended, it meant no UEFA Nations League and no Euro 2024 either. Russian clubs were also banned from European competitions such as the Champions League.
But here’s the thing: Russia didn’t stop playing international football. They simply chose someone else to play against.
Since the ban went into effect, they have faced Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And this past week, Russia took on Iran in Tehran and Iraq in Saint Petersburg, site of the 2018 World Cup final. These were all friendlies, of course, but Russia will likely get a taste of tournament football this summer, when they participate in the Central Asian Football Association (CAFA) championship.
CAFA is a regional federation within the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). It has six members (Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan) and this will be its inaugural tournament. Inviting teams from other confederations is nothing new in football — the Copa America has done it often and for decades — and CAFA decided, since Russia had nothing better to do, to ask them to participate.
You can see, and perhaps even sympathise with, the argument that the Russian FA is doing nothing wrong. Their job is to look after Russian football. Russia were banned for the actions of their government and have to live with the consequences. They can’t play in major competitions, most countries won’t play them in friendlies and many more couldn’t even if they wanted to because the international calendar is so packed with competitive matches that there are very few open dates. But hey, if they find someone who will play them, why shouldn’t they?
That’s one view, and you may or may not agree with it, but there’s a broader aspect too, which is probably more germane.
Most of the world — witness the United Nations resolutions — and certainly Western developed nations and their allies are shunning Russia. Like the outcast on the playground, what do you do? You reach out to the other outcasts: the ones who are neither part of the rich and popular crowd nor aspire to be a part of it. Such as Iran, also on the receiving end of heavy Western sanctions for years. Or the various “stans,” unloved and ignored by most of the world for most of their (brief) history as independent nations.
Two years ago it would have been unthinkable (and pointless) for the Russian FA to play against Tajikistan or Turkmenistan (108 and 135 respectively in the rankings). Today, that’s all you’ve got and in so doing, football mirrors real life.
Russia (as in the country) is reaching out and trying to build support among non-Western nations. Iran was a no-brainer and in fact had been supplying drone technology to Russia for some time. But Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently met Chinese president Xi Jinping. Since last summer, Putin has worked to lobby India, China and South Africa for support or at least neutrality in the Ukraine conflict and indeed all three of them abstained last month from a U.N. resolution calling for peace in Ukraine.
You seek help where you can get it, which brings us back to football. If there’s no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, there’s also no realistic end to the UEFA ban on Russia and Russian clubs. But what if they formally announced they were leaving UEFA and simply joined the Asian Football Confederation? That scenario has been mooted for some time and last month, AFC president Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa did nothing to rule it out. “We have a good relationship with the Russian federation and with the rest of the European confederations,” he said. “We want the best interests of the game as we seek to keep politics away from football.”
You’d imagine there would be strong opposition from AFC members whose governments have taken strong stances in support of Ukraine, such as Australia, South Korea and Japan. But you could also see how the “politics and sport don’t mix” line might play well with some regional governments. And, of course, there’s a precedent. Israel used to be part of the AFC (which made sense geographically) until 1974, when it was excluded for political reasons tied to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, Israel are a part of UEFA though, weirdly, they’ve also previously competed in Oceania Football Confederation events.
Football-wise for Russia, however, such a switch would make little sense. Most of Russia is, indeed, part of the Asian continent, but most football clubs are on the European side of the Ural Mountains. From a cynical perspective, switching to the AFC would mean giving up lucrative competitions such as the Euros and UEFA club competitions for the AFC versions, which offer less competition and less money.
Also, how would FIFA president Gianni Infantino react? On the one hand, having just been reelected (by acclamation, no less) and with no new elections until 2027, you’d think he could take a stand without worrying about hanging on to his job. On the other hand, well, it’s FIFA: it will put up with politics if it has to, but would prefer we only paid attention to the sports part. And if it’s what the members want, well… who is Infantino to say no?
And so we’re left with something in-between a possibility and a bargaining chip, all for political reasons. Which is how we got here in the first place: politics and war.
But that’s football. Heck, that’s sports, and anybody who tells you that politics and sport are separate and can be kept separate is either referring to games few care about or is simply wrong and out of touch with reality. Rather than pretending, it’s better to face reality and deal with it, because international sport continues to be at once a tool and a reflection of international politics and self-interest. And as long as people care, that won’t change.