On Friday, it was confirmed by UEFA that the Champions League final scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg this season would be moved instead to Paris in response to Russia’s war of choice in Ukraine.
In the days since, with federations from Poland, Sweden, and Czechia refusing to play World Cup qualifiers and England’s FA ruling out playing Russia in any competition “for the foreseeable future,” the question was what further steps the sport’s governing bodies might take.
Today, we were given the answer as following the International Olympic Committee’s call to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from sporting events FIFA and UEFA have announced that Russia and Russian clubs will be banned from all of their competitions.
Friday’s initial decision could have an impact on Liverpool, who are up 2-0 on Inter Milan in their Champions League Round of 16 tie and, if they make it to the final, would now travel to Paris rather than Russia.
The latest news likely won’t, at least not straight away given there are no remaining Russian sides in the Champions League. However, in the Europa League Spartak Moscow are now expected to be expelled, with RB Leipzig advancing to the quarter-finals as a result.
As was the case last year when some of Europe’s richest clubs, including Liverpool, tried to found a breakaway super league only to have their efforts driven back by widespread and vociferous public outcry, this is a reminder public opinion matters.
Regimes like Vladimir Putin’s Russia have long used sport and sporting bodies as a way to project soft power, investing in clubs and competitions as a way of swaying the public’s opinion of them in a more positive direction.
Saudi Arabia, who have this season bought Newcastle United, as well as Manchester City owners Abu Dhabi, are similarly invested in sport as an instrument of soft power—and doing so while the Saudis and UAE are engaged in a bombing campaign in Yemen that deserves more of the world’s attention.
Meanwhile, the World Cup Russia now know they won’t be at has seen the country hosting it accused of a myriad of human rights abuses related to, amongst other things, abuses of the migrant labour building the infrastructure for the World Cup.
Sports governing bodies have rightly acted to punish Russia’s unconscionable behaviour, but historically they have been more than happy to take the money of some of the world’s worst people in exchange for allowing dictators and oligarchs to use the sport to their own ends.
The most optimistic reading of the current situation is might be that it will prove a tipping point, that along with the reaction to the super league last year the public may begin to embrace the power for good they collectively have. Whether that will happen remains to be seen.