The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi turned the eyes of the world on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Moscow's preparations for the invasion of Ukraine, which would begin three weeks later., were still hidden out sight. As the cameras followed every twist and turn of the bobsleds, every pike and puck of the freestyle skiers, Russian spetsnaz were secretly preparing to cross into the Crimean Peninsula.
These Special Forces were the so-called little green men who started to pop up in Crimea, the Ukrainian province eventually annexed by Moscow. Since that time, Russian personnel, equipment, and weapons have flooded into the eastern oblasts of Ukraine, fueling a war that has cost more than 5,000 lives and trampled on Ukrainian sovereignty.
So why is the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) still allowing Russia to host the 2018 World Cup? The soccer world's leading organization seems perpetually mired in scandal, and among the discontent are accusations that unfair play helped Russia land the World Cup in 2018, and Qatar in 2022. To restore a modicum of credibility, FIFA should do the right thing and take the World Cup away from Russia.
The move would shed no blood. But it would sting hard in the Kremlin. As British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has observed, ""If there's one thing that Vladimir Putin cares about, as far as I can see, it's his sense of status."
Putin, of course, insists that "football and sport are outside politics." This is plainly untrue. The Nazis used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a platform to display the regime's military might, carefully choreographing the opening ceremony to serve the Nazis' political message. The U.S. team's refusal to give Hitler the Nazi salute conveyed a powerful political message in return.
Moscow itself has certainly not always acted as though sports trump politics. In 1973, the Soviet Union refused to play Chile in the World Cup because of anger over the ouster of a leftist government there. The Soviet Union and the West traded Olympic boycotts in 1980 and 1984.
International sporting competitions are inherently political. Putin understands this just as surely as he denies it. Stripping Russia of the 2018 World Cup would send a clear message: Aggression carries a cost.
Such a decision would also hurt Putin's ability to keep his cronies flush with cash. Large public works projects are a wonderful way to siphon state funds into private pockets. Russian opposition leaders have claimed that $25-30 billion were stolen from public funds while Russia prepared for the Sochi Olympics. It doesn't strain the imagination to assume World Cup preparations will be treated similarly.
In March 2014, two U.S. Senators wrote a letter to FIFA President Sepp Blatter calling for the suspension of Russia's FIFA membership. FIFA responded by stating that only violations of its statutes warrant an expulsion. It's hard to see how Russia's invasion of Ukraine doesn't violate FIFA statutes against "discrimination of any kind against a Country, private citizen or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin," (I:3). Furthermore, Russia's actions have certainly run afoul of the FIFA Statute to promote friendly relations "between Members, Confederations, Clubs, Officials and Players," as well to promote friendly relations "in society for humanitarian objectives," (I:4).
FIFA could make a legal argument for suspension or expulsion of Russia, thus stripping them of the 2018 World Cup, if they so choose.
Instead, FIFA continues to stand by Russia. The longer they resist doing the right thing, the harder it becomes for another nation to prepare to host. What Putin and FIFA recognize as well is that time is likely to bring political fissures, weakening calls for Russia to lose its prize. Now is the time for FIFA to act.
The third pillar of FIFA's mission is to build a better future for all through football. They should start by removing the World Cup from Putin's Russia.
Originally appeared in Real Clear World