Russia back on international soccer stage in Iran despite sanctions
Where qualification for the 2024 European Championship in Germany began today, Russia plays a friendly game against Iran in Tehran. A special match, since the Russians have been officially banned from international soccer by FIFA and UEFA.
The Russians’ last official match dates back almost a year and a half. They narrowly lost the decisive pool match against Croatia in World Cup qualification. The defeat condemned the Russians to the playoffs for a spot in Qatar, but it would never get that far. Until today, Russia would not play another duel outside the former Soviet borders.
Sanctions against Russia
On Feb. 24 last year, exactly one month before the World Cup qualification clash between Russia and Poland was to be played, Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, invaded neighboring Ukraine. It led to outrage within the international community. And eventually sanctions, including mass exclusion of Russian teams in (almost) all sports.
So too in soccer. Russia has played three international matches since that match against Croatia, on Nov. 14, 2021. Against Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, not entirely coincidentally former Soviet states, which are normally on Russia’s side. But Iran is now making an exception.
A shame, according to the national coach of Ukraine Ruslan Rotan. His country starts Sunday’s European Championship qualifier at Wembley against England, but he cannot help but speak out on the issue: “Such countries playing against Russia, an aggressor, support Russia’s actions and aggression in Ukraine.”
For despite Russia being condemned to play friendly matches, this way the team is slowly getting involved in top soccer again. Iran may not be a high-flyer, but it did just attend the last World Cup in Qatar. And on Sunday the Russians will face Iraq, not entirely coincidentally also an Asian country.
Switching to other soccer federation
Late last year, reports already seeped through that Russia is considering switching from UEFA to the AFC, the Asian Football Confederation. A federation with mostly countries that currently seem to have fewer to no problems playing against Russia than countries in Europe. It would be a high-profile move, but not a first.
Israel and Kazakhstan, for example, already took the opposite route, for various reasons. And Australia has been competing in Asia since 2006, because the team did not get a direct qualification spot via Oceania and thought it had a better chance of winning a World Cup via Asia. A thought that proved correct in retrospect, as Australia managed to qualify in all four attempts at the AFC.
But the Russian case is more like Israel’s. Arab countries at one point refused to play against Israel because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Such was the case during the 1958 World Cup qualification in Sweden. To prevent Israel from qualifying without playing, FIFA concocted an intercontinental playoff against Wales.
Israel lost, but the problems continued. In 1986, the league joined the Oceanic confederation, and as of 1994, Israel is a full member of UEFA. Only that does not seem to be the solution to the problem for Russia. Israel has never qualified for a tournament since joining UEFA.
Russia already regularly qualified for final tournaments at UEFA. But what if the team qualifies for a World Cup via the normally weaker Asian qualification route? Something that seems quite possible, especially with the expansion from 32 to 48 countries starting with the next World Cup.
Russia would then likely face a European or North American country at a final tournament. And those, for now, refuse to come out against Russia. Although FIFA could prohibit participation in qualification at this point.
End of sanctions Russia in sight?
Meanwhile, there does seem to be a small opening: behind the scenes negotiations with UEFA are underway. In them, relaxation of sanctions are being discussed. A start has already been made: an international youth tournament will be held in the Russian city of Volgograd in May under the UEFA banner.
Until then, the Russians will have to make do with friendly matches like the one in Tehran. By the way, that game ended 1-1 due to exploited penalties by Anton Miranchuk and Mehdi Taremi.