DUBAI: Among the many consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the death knell of the separation of sport and politics.
For years, the concept was presented whenever it suited authorities such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA or UEFA.
But history is replete with examples of politics poking its nose into sport, and the sanctions that followed. Who can forget the boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 by 66 countries, led by the United States, or the reciprocal boycott by 16 Eastern Bloc countries of the Los Angeles Olympics four years later?
Even further, politics interfered in football during the 1930 World Cup, the first time the event was held, with only 13 countries taking part due to the distance between Europe and Uruguay, where the tournament took place.
There were other political issues; Yugoslavia ran into a problem picking their team for the tournament after Croatian players refused to sing the Yugoslav anthem, with the team consisting mainly of Serbian players to avoid the problem.
Six decades later, Yugoslavia was in the news again.
Just before Euro 92 in Sweden, the war-torn country was ejected from the tournament as it slowly disintegrated in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia.
It was a historic precedent and the first suspension by UEFA.
Amazingly, Denmark came on as a substitute in the 11th hour and took the trophy, beating Germany 2-0 in the final.
Apart from the Yugoslav wars, Europe has mostly known relative peace over the past 50 years, until the conflict in Ukraine.
At first, FIFA and UEFA hesitated and dragged their feet, as did the IOC for years, before having no choice but to eject Russia from all club and international tournaments, including the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA World Cup qualifiers for Qatar 2022.
The ban on the Russian national team has benefited Poland, their opponents in the World Cup qualifiers originally scheduled for March 24. Now the Poles will meet Sweden’s winners against the Czech Republic, who have both announced that they would refuse to play against Russia if they were allowed to remain in the competition.
Similarly, at club level, German club RB Leipzig qualified for the quarter-finals of the Europa League, after their opponents Spartak Moscow were sent off.
Perhaps the most significant consequence of the Russian sanctions has been the freezing of all assets of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, meaning the defending Champions League winners can no longer be sold, tickets to upcoming matches or making transfers, among other restrictions.
Historically, sanctions against non-European teams have been much easier to implement for teams like FIFA.
Iraq, due to crowd problems, socio-political concerns and the outbreak of several wars, has been banned from hosting competitive matches on its home soil no less than six times since 1980. The last of these them, imposed in 2013, only came to an end last week when FIFA announced that the Iraqi FA would now be allowed to stage a World Cup qualifier against the United Arab Emirates in Baghdad on March 24.
But it’s not just home games that have been banned.
In 2009, football’s governing body banned Iraq from all international competitions after the government dissolved its National Olympic Committee and national sports federations in violation of FIFA and Olympics regulations. The suspension was lifted in March 2010.
Kuwait, which in the 1970s and 1980s were, along with Iraq, two of the powers in the region, also suffered several suspensions from FIFA for government interference.
The latest came on October 15, 2015, when Kuwaiti clubs and the national team were banned from international competition. FIFA President Gianni Infantino lifted the ban on December 12, 2018, but the damage done to Kuwait’s football development, not to mention its reputation, will take much longer to repair.
In Africa too, numerous suspensions and sanctions have been imposed on nations that have flouted FIFA regulations.
Most famously, South Africa were banned from international competition for 40 years due to apartheid, and were only reinstated in the football family by FIFA in 1992. They went on to win the Cup d’Afrique des Nations 1996 at home.
Undoubtedly, in conflicts such as the one we are witnessing in Ukraine, football and sport in general are not on the minds of many who suffer, but to argue that politics and sport should be separated is not only historically hypocritical, but allows for nations and individuals to literally get away with murder.
FIFA, UEFA and the IOC did not initially cover themselves in glory, but after taking significant steps to sanction Russia, it remains to be seen if other nations that have also stepped forward will suffer the same consequences.