As real diplomats negotiate the terms of the Crimean conflict, a new fight started recently somewhere American and Russian representatives don't normally engage — on the soccer pitch, or in the back offices that regulate the soccer pitch, at least.
Over the last few days, officials for the U.S. and Russian men's national teams each submitted letters to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) requesting the other team be barred from the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil over human rights abuses. Two American senators asked FIFA to ban Russia over Russian troops invading Crimea. In response, Russia sent a similar letter to FIFA requesting the U.S. be banned for, well, a much longer resume of invasions. Soccer officials refuse to pick a side in this match, though.
On March 7, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk and Indiana Sen. Dan Coates's letter, directly addressed to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, asked Russia be banned from this year's World Cup because the country allegedly violated FIFA rules when invading Crimea, citing how FIFA handled the conflict in Yugoslavia as precedent. “Since Russia has similarly displayed a brazen disrespect for fundamental principles of Fifa and international law, [we] hope you will agree that it doesn’t deserve the honour of either hosting the World Cup or participating in one," the letter reads. The Republican senators suggested FIFA rescind Russia's right to host the 2018 World Cup, too.
FIFA barred Yugoslavia from fielding a team in the 1992 European Championships and the 1994 World Cup over the complicated disputes that split the country forever. Recently, historians have re-examined Yugoslavia's potential 11-man squad during the 1990s as a lost soccer super power, a team that would have captivated and dominated had greater conflicts not kept the players off the pitch.
But Russia didn't take the U.S. soccer official's bullying laying down. Citing the same argument used by Putin in an Saturday Night Live sketch last weekend, two members of Russia's parliament asked FIFA in a similar letter sent on March 11 to ban the U.S. from the World Cup. Duma representatives Alexander Sidyakin and Michael Markelov asked Blatter to revoke America's FIFA membership over the “U.S.’s military aggression against several sovereign states,” including Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. As added fuel, the two also cited “numerous cases of human rights violation all over the world revealed by E. Snowden." Which is admittedly a clever angle to take considering those abuses particularly angered Brazil, the World Cup's host country.
Now, does either country have a hope or prayer to stand on? Not really. Article 3 in the FIFA statutes does explicitly condemn "discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason," and lists "suspension or expulsion," as possible punishments. Both U.S.A. and Russia cited Article 3 as a reason the other country should be removed from competition. But those rules really only apply to the national soccer organizations — the rules don't apply to politicians like, say, Putin and Obama.
A top international soccer official has already suggested the politicians keep to the politicking. "I don't know why 11 players would not be allowed to play at the World Cup. Where is their responsibility? Why don't you [shut down] the Embassy? Embassies are still in the country," Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) president Michel Platini told CNN. In other words, let soccer people worry about soccer.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's men's national team recently beat the U.S. squad, 2-0, in pre-World Cup exhibition play. The irony: Ukraine did not qualify to play in Brazil but expectations have not been this high for an American squad since the 1994 World Cup. Let's count it as a courtesy loss and hope it signal concerns for Brazil.