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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Soccer opens a door to Russia’s return, and faces a backlash

Russia, in red, facing Germany in a UEFA under-17 qualifier in October 2021. Six months later, Russian teams were banned from European soccer.

By Tariq Panja

European soccer’s governing body is facing angry criticism and open defiance from some of its member nations after a vote by its executive committee last week partially lifted a blanket ban on Russian teams that was imposed after last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The proposal to allow Russia’s teams to participate in qualifying for the European men’s and women’s under-17 championships that will be held next year, and for which qualifying has already begun, came as a surprise to many members of the governing body, UEFA. Its approval has reopened what many believed was a bitter but settled debate about solidarity with Ukraine.

Ukraine’s national soccer federation quickly objected to the vote, arguing that allowing even Russian youth teams to return to tournaments “tolerates Russia’s aggressive policy.” Several federations, including Sweden, Norway and a group of Baltic nations, noted that the conditions that had led to the initial ban remained unchanged, and they invited punishment by saying that they would refuse to play Russian opponents under any circumstances.

The tensions in soccer could be a preview of difficult discussions playing out in dozens of sports over the reintegration of Russia and its athletes into global sports ahead of next year’s Paris Olympics. And the angry reaction to the decision highlighted the difficulty of balancing official solidarity with Ukraine — and opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine — against the rights of athletes, even youth players, with little say in the actions of their governments.

The differences at times appear irreconcilable. A bloc of Western nations, for example, continues to lobby against efforts by the International Olympic Committee to create conditions in which Russian athletes will be allowed to participate in the Paris Games as neutrals. And sports as diverse as tennis and fencing have already seen the effects of the war provoke confrontations and snubs at their competitions.

On Friday, Russian athletes received more positive news when the International Paralympic Committee cleared them to compete at the Games that will take place in Paris after next year’s Summer Olympics. The committee voted to allow them to take part as neutrals, without their national emblems or flag.

European soccer officials, for their part, were struggling to understand why their organization’s powerful president, Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, had chosen to drag their sport back into the dispute. Ceferin had repeatedly said that the blanket ban on Russian teams would remain in place “until the war ends,” they were quick to note, and the competitive concerns behind the original ban — that the refusal of teams to play Russia made tournament draws unworkable and potentially unfair — had not changed.

The stage for the fight was unusual as well. Youth tournaments usually merit little attention at the leadership meetings of European soccer’s governing body, often consigned to cursory updates at the bottom of a long agenda. But this week was different.

The closed-door gathering at a hotel in Cyprus was about 90 minutes old when Ceferin spoke up and put forward a motion. He asked the committee to partially lift a ban on Russian soccer teams that had been imposed after the invasion of Ukraine so that Russia’s junior teams could return to European competition.

Ceferin left little doubt about his preference. Arguing that it was not right to punish children, he cited his own experience growing up in Slovenia during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and referenced a United Nations charter on the rights of children before allowing others in the room to speak. While most of the officials remained silent — typical in such gatherings, where decisions are usually agreed before a formal vote — Poland’s representative, former star player Zbigniew Boniek, offered passionate opposition.

Boniek took the floor for about five minutes, pointing out that children in Ukraine, too, continued to suffer because of the war. He said that nothing had changed since the decision to bar Russia was made only days after the start of the war in February 2022.

A Romanian official in the room, who did not have a vote, also spoke. He reminded the board that Russia’s war was also affecting children in other European countries. The war, he said, was forcing budget cuts on services in Romania to account for increases in military spending.

The representatives from England and Wales joined Boniek in abstaining when the vote was taken, but the motion passed anyway. The repercussions began almost immediately.

A handful of European soccer federations immediately said they would not play against Russian teams should they be paired against them in qualification tournaments. Sweden, whose representative at UEFA, Karl-Erik Nilsson, voted for the plan to allow Russian teams to return, went further: It said it would bar Russian players from traveling to next year’s women’s under-17 finals in Sweden should the team qualify.

It is unclear what motivated UEFA’s decision to open the door to Russia’s return. Ceferin’s initiative was not widely shared with officials within the organization before the vote, something that typically happens so the organization can game out the implications of a decision, and the practical consequences are significant: The qualifying draws for both the men’s and women’s under-17 championships were made without Russia, and men’s teams have already begun playing matches. Women’s qualifying begins next week.

If the decision is not reversed, UEFA now faces the specter of having to take disciplinary action against countries who refuse to play against Russian opponents. Still, its president was unmoved.

“By banning children from our competitions, we not only fail to recognize and uphold a fundamental right for their holistic development but we directly discriminate against them,” Ceferin said in comments published by UEFA after the vote. “By providing opportunities to play and compete with their peers from all over Europe, we are investing in what we hope will be a brighter and more capable future generation and a better tomorrow.”

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