Alia El Didi Eastern Europe and Russia Society, Culture, and Security

The Possibility of a FIFA 2018 Boycott

Russian Football Team
Russian National Football Team at the 2012 World Cup

Nearly a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the US and its allies have decided to implement sanctions on the country, with Russia retaliating in the same manner. Will these sanctions extend to the FIFA World Cup 2018, which is to be hosted by Russia? With the situation in Ukraine deteriorating, and conflict in Donetsk and other towns at an all-time high, it is likely that the relationship between Russia and NATO countries will continue to be unstable. US Congress just passed the “Ukraine Freedom Support Act,” which will allow the US to supply military equipment to the government in Kiev. If this act is implemented, the US will essentially be in a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine.

There has already been much speculation that Western countries may boycott FIFA 2018 due to Russian actions in Ukraine. The United Kingdom and the European Union in particular have actually discussed a potential boycott. Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has referred to the possibility of a boycott as a “political and symbolic action” that would annoy Russian President Vladimir Putin since it would be a blow to his “sense of status.” There have also been reports that the European Commission was considering a boycott as an extension of sanctions against Russia. However, former UK Sports Minister Richard Cabron has said that a boycott would be an “empty gesture” since there is no overall consensus on the issue.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter has declared unconditional support for the FIFA Worldcup 2018, set to be hosted by Russia

And Cabron seems to be right. Germany, the European Union’s most powerful member and one of the strongest football teams, has officially stated that a boycott was not being considered. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert has said that FIFA 2018 is still four years away and boycotting the tournament will not be discussed right now. Moreover, FIFA President Sepp Blatter has responded to the boycott speculation by saying that FIFA “unconditionally supports” Russia in 2018. He has also said that a boycott in sports never had “any benefit” and that we should wait and see how the geopolitical situation will unfold. Regardless, Blatter has continued to reiterate that FIFA will not get involved in politics and that they will continue to work with Russia.

The current political rhetoric sounds quite similar to the Cold War years, when a Western coalition of countries decided to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics as a response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In retaliation, the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles games in 1984. Overall, boycotting any international tournament is usually ineffective, frowned upon by the athletes who compete, and defeats the whole purpose of the actual sport. A FIFA 2018 boycott would be ineffective because there is no international consensus. There has been no unified decision from the West while FIFA itself has continually stated that it will stand by its decisions.

Politicizing the most watched sports event in the world through a boycott would serve as counter-productive, as it will increase tension and hostility between the West and Russia and it will anger many football fans worldwide. A tournament as important as FIFA should instead be used as an international platform to spread positive messages that include tolerance, sportsmanship, and cooperation between all countries, despite their political differences.

Alia El Didi
Alia El Didi is a Contributor to the NATO Association of Canada website. She was the first program coordinator for the NAOC’s Society, Culture, and International Relations program. With degrees in political science and international relations, she developed a keen interest in political, social, and cultural issues pertaining to the Middle East and North Africa. Her most recent research includes Middle Eastern governments’ political strategy and the evolution of political Islam.