Court rules for FIFA over Russia, paving way for continued sports bans amid war

Russian President Vladimir Putin rubs the top of the trophy after the France v Croatia FIFA World Cup 2018 final at the Luzhniki Stadium on July 15th 2018 in Moscow, Russia (Photo by Tom Jenkins)
Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine will continue to cost Russia a spot in international soccer competitions. (Photo by Tom Jenkins)

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has dismissed Russian appeals against bans from global soccer and, in doing so, seemingly paved a legal path toward long-term sporting sanctions against Russian athletes amid the war in Ukraine.

Russia's soccer federation had filed the appeals shortly after FIFA, soccer's global governing body, and UEFA, soccer's European governing body, barred Russian clubs and national teams from all competitions less than a week after Russia's invasion began. FIFA and UEFA have since applied the decision to the 2022 men's World Cup, the 2023 women's World Cup, the 2022-23 Champions League and other tournaments.

Russia argued that the governing bodies had no legal right to do so, and that they were violating their own "political neutrality" rules. But CAS, the highest international sports court, ruled Friday that both FIFA and UEFA had "acted within the scope of the discretion granted to them under their respective statutes and regulations."

The ruling fortified FIFA's stance, but also seemed to validate dozens of other bans on Russian athletes across international sports — some of which have also been or could be challenged. In the days and weeks after the International Olympic Committee recommended that sports federations "not invite or allow the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes," the international governing bodies of hockey, gymnastics, swimming, skating and other sports followed soccer's lead.

Some specified that the indefinite suspensions were sanctions. “The world is horrified by what Russia has done, aided and abetted by Belarus," Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, the track and field governing body, said at the time. "Governments, business and other international organizations have imposed sanctions and measures against Russia across all sectors. Sport has to step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace."

To legally justify the suspensions, however, FIFA clarified in March court proceedings that its decision was "not a sanction," according to CAS. It cited statements by players and soccer federations in Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, Russia's would-be 2022 World Cup qualifying opponents, that they would refuse to take the same field as Russia. According to a CAS document, FIFA argued that those decisions were "fully understandable," and that, if other nations took similar stands, "the consequences [for the World Cup] would be irreparable and chaotic."

CAS has not yet published the full grounds for Friday's ruling, but in a release, it indicated that its three-judge panel had sided with FIFA's reasoning. "The Panel found it unnecessary to characterize the nature of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but only to focus on the consequences of such conflict for the competitions affected," CAS wrote.

"The Panel finds it unfortunate that the current military operations in Ukraine, for which Russian football teams, clubs, and players have themselves no responsibility, had, by reason of the decisions of FIFA and UEFA, such an adverse effect on them and Russian football generally, but those effects were, in the Panel’s view, offset by the need for the secure and orderly conduct of football events for the rest of the world."

The IOC, in public comments, had adopted similar reasoning. "Let me emphasize again that these are protective measures — not sanctions — measures to protect the integrity of competitions," IOC president Thomas Bach told Olympic officials from around the world in May.

The logic parroted by the IOC and many international sports federations was simple. As a spokesperson for FIG, the gymnastics governing body, told Yahoo Sports via email this week: "It is evident that letting Russian and Belarusian athletes compete in the current situation is not acceptable, while Ukrainian athletes are threatened by bombs in their country due to the war."

FIFA's arguments in March went steps further. One of its core responsibilities, FIFA explained, is to organize World Cups. It foresaw controversy and refusals to play, and perhaps even security concerns, if Russia were invited. U.S. Soccer, for example, said on Feb. 28 that it would "neither tarnish our global game, nor dishonor Ukraine, by taking the same field as Russia, no matter the level of competition or circumstance, until freedom and peace have been restored."

Across sports, at any event where athletes explicitly represent their countries, officials could foresee similar refusals. Many national sports governing bodies take cues from their governments. In early July, government officials from dozens of countries, including the U.S., reaffirmed their position that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be banned from all international competitions.

With the war ongoing, and almost five months old, most governing bodies have maintained that position — and in many cases have justified it on the same grounds as FIFA and UEFA have. Friday's CAS ruling establishes a precedent that will, in theory, be difficult for Russia to overturn.

It is unclear what, at this point, could lead to the reversal of bans, or what the timeline for the easing of sanctions might be.

When asked what could lead to the reinstatement of Russian and Belarusian gymnasts, the FIG spokesperson wrote earlier this week: "The end of the war to start with followed by ample discussions with the different stakeholders."