IFIFA rarely bans national teams from the World Cup. So when soccer’s world governing body announced earlier this year that Russia would be banned from competitions – which includes this year’s tournament in Qatar – it was an important step. Russia has become an international pariah for its war in Ukraine, and the sports arena is no exception.
“This is one of the few cases we’ve had so far where a country has been specifically banned from political action,” said Mauricio Borrero, associate professor of history at St. John’s University in New York and an expert on global soccer and Russia. It is more common for national teams to be banned as a result of problems with their football associations or third party interference.
Below are some of the countries FIFA has banned at various times over the years, whether for political or other reasons.
In February FIFA and UEFA banned all Russian clubs and national teams “until further notice” as a result of the war against Ukraine. Pressure from other countries was mounting; many European teams such as England, Poland and Sweden already said they refused to play against Russia. In addition to barring the Russian men’s team from the World Cup, the women’s team could not play in this summer’s Euro 2022 competition and Spartak Moscow could not compete in the Europa League.
Kenya and Zimbabwe
Countries are usually temporarily banned due to government interference or problems with the national federation controlling the sport. This happened with Kenya and Zimbabwe earlier this year. Kenya’s Ministry of Sports shut down the Kenya Football Federation following allegations that funds were misused. The Football Association of Zimbabwe has been suspended by government officials following allegations of cheating and sexual harassment of female referees.
FIFA suspended South Africa in 1961 in response to growing calls from the anti-apartheid movement to boycott South Africa. The then legislation of the country mixed race sports teams banned and required foreign countries participating in international competitions held in South Africa to send all-white teams.
Following their expulsion from world football, South Africa were later banned from the Olympics, international cricket and the Davis Cup (tennis championship). FIFA reinstated South Africa’s membership in the early 1990s when apartheid was abolished; in 2010, the country hosted the tournament.
FIFA and UEFA banned Yugoslavia from participation in the European Championship in 1992 and the World Cup in 1994 following UN sanctions amid the aggression of the Serb-dominated government in the Balkans, especially towards the former Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Chile could did not participate in qualifying matches for the 1994 World Cup held in the USA after a dramatic attempt to steal a place in the 1990 tournament from rivals Brazil.
Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas appeared to have been hit by a flare thrown from the Brazilian section of the stadium as Brazil led 1-0 with 20 minutes remaining. A win or a draw would have secured Brazil a place at the World Cup. Although Rojas was seen bleeding and the game was stopped, a subsequent photo revealed that he had not been hit by the racket; he had cut off his own head while using a razor hidden in his gloves.
In 2015, FIFA claimed third party intervention of the local football association of Indonesia by the government. Although the ban was raised in 2016, this prevented the team from competing in the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers.
In 2016, Kuwait had to loses a qualifying match for the 2018 World Cup against Myanmar. FIFA previously suspended the country’s football association due to government interference in the country’s domestic football association. The ban lasted until more than two years.
FIFA banned Mexico from the 1990 World Cup held in Italy because they included four overage players in the qualifying games for the 1989 World Youth Championship. The suspension lasted two years.
In 2011, the team’s fans were brutal during an Asian qualifier against Oman. They threw stones and glass bottles at the referee, the Omani players and the visiting coach. The Omani team eventually ran into the dressing room to stay safe. FIFA awarded Oman, already 2-0 up in the match, a win that eliminated Myanmar from the 2014 World Cup. The Myanmar team was also banned from competing in the 2018 tournament, but the ban was picked up before the tournament after an appeal.
Controversial decisions to let teams play
There are many historical examples where FIFA has not banned countries from committing abuses. In particular, at the 1938 World Cup. Nazi Germany was involved. In 1978, Argentina also participated in it hosted the tournament despite the military coup two years earlier. The stadium where the World Cup final was played was just a few miles from a military detention center where political prisoners were held and tortured, Borrero says. “Some of the political prisoners later recalled hearing sounds from the stadium – people saying ‘goal’. It was one of those horrible, horrible situations,” adds Borrero.
This year, large-scale anti-government protests in Iran have led to calls by some activists, including Iranian athletes, knock the national soccer team out of the tournament (even if not all Iranians agree that a ban is the most effective form of protest).
However, experts note that banning football teams based on their country’s political record could set a thorny precedent that could be applied unevenly, as many countries are involved in human rights abuses – such as India’s discrimination against Muslims, Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestiniansor even host nation Qatar’s attitude towards migrant workers.
Borrero says that in the case of Iran, for example, a ban could set a difficult precedent. “Where do you stop? Many countries have these problems.
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