Crimea: World Cup Own-Goal for Kremlin?
Could 2018 become the new 1980? It might, if recent initiatives aiming to use a major sporting event to punish Russia for geopolitical misbehavior can gain traction.
Back in 1979, it was the Kremlin’s military occupation of Afghanistan that prompted a US-led boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games the following year. The trigger today is Russia’s land grab in Crimea, an act of territorial aggression that has evoked memories of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland back in 1938.
Russia, as readers may remember, is scheduled to host the 2018 World Cup football tournament, the world’s most watched sporting event. A couple of football fans in the United States and Europe, outraged by Russia’s incursion, have launched web-based petitions calling on FIFA, football’s governing body, to relocate the 2018 World Cup.
“International sporting bodies have an obligation to speak up when there’s injustice, and there’s a tournament being held in the country that’s perpetuating the injustice,” said Zach Lewis, a New York City resident who launched a petition drive hosted by the global activism website, Change.org.
In the two weeks since its March 11 launch, Lewis’ petition has attracted 47,000 signers from 65 countries. A similar Change.org petition, initiated by UK resident James Lavin, also has over 47,000 signatures.
In addition, two Republican Party US senators, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Dan Coats of Indiana, have sent a letter to FIFA, urging Russia’s removal as the 2018 tournament host and the expulsion of the Russian national team from the 2014 tournament, to be held this summer in Brazil. The letter cited Article 3 of FIFA’s statutes; “[d]iscrimination 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 is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
The March 6 senatorial letter went on to characterize Russia’s “military occupation of a sovereign Ukraine” as showing “brazen disrespect for [the] fundamental principles of FIFA and international law.” If the Russian team is barred from playing in the 2014 World Cup, Israel would be next in line to participate.
In his petition, Lewis also takes Russia to task for its anti-gay laws. He said the legislation makes members of the global LGBT community feel unwelcome in Russia. “The World Cup shouldn’t be played in a country that isn’t open to all people who love the game,” Lewis said.
So far, Joseph (Sepp) Blatter, FIFA’s president, has seemed resistant to the notion of shifting the 2018 World Cup from Russia. But Blatter’s steadfastness could waver, given that corruption allegations are swirling around FIFA over its selection of Russia and Qatar as the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 cup tournaments respectively.
The ongoing graft probe into FIFA’s selection process gives Lewis hope. “We have four years to build a campaign,” he said, referring to his initiative. “You don’t know where this could go.”
Justin Burke is Eurasianet's publisher.