Ukraine-Russia conflict: Football can't stop a war - but it can send a message

Fewer than 24 hours after announcing a set of soft sanctions against the Russian national team and the country's clubs, Uefa and Fifa were forced to think again.

Fierce pressure from inside and outside the football community saw the governing bodies bow to the weight of criticism and suspend all teams from Russia from participating in their competitions “until further notice”.

Every history student knows football is once said to have started a war. The Honduras-El Salvador conflict known as the 100-Hour War or, indeed, the Football War, was reputedly triggered by a three-game series of games between the countries to qualify for the 1970 World Cup.

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But can the world’s most popular game stop a war? That is less certain and, of course, that’s not the point of sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with the World Cup trophy and FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
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Instead, they are designed to send a message – even if, in the case of Fifa, it was a delayed one. Football's world governing body made the initial limp decree that Russian teams could play on, just not in their own country and under the guise of the Football Union of Russia.

It's easy to imagine this being met with a smirk by Russian president Vladimir Putin – if it even registered with him at all.

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These new measures will surely merit more than shrugged shoulders in the Kremlin. Putin is a sports fan. Not being at the World Cup finals due to take place in Qatar, which is itself another Fifa-delivered embarrassment, will be a blow to Russia’s prestige.

Of course, there was every possibility they might not have been there anyway even were they permitted to play on. Russia were due to face Poland in the first of a potential two play-offs later this month. That won’t now happen.

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Very little will now happen in an international sports sense involving Russia. Daniil Medvedev's ascent to No. 1 tennis player in the world could be short-lived.

Set against the bloody conflict currently escalating in Ukraine, it is of minor concern. But sport does still have a role to play.

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Fifa made the right decision in the end, even if it came after football associations such as Scotland’s had already adopted the position of refusing to play Russia at any age group and any level. There comes a time when football has to stop playing politics and do what’s right.

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