Joanne O’Riordan: Sport too greedy and self-serving to see through wily Putin

World’s sporting bodies have long been used by the Russian leader for his own nefarious ends

Imagine Gianni Infantino going for a stroll down some fancy promenade by an expensive beach in Doha.

He gets the phone call he's dreaded for some time now – Russia and Putin aren't all they're hyped up to be, and he'll have to publicly condemn them and possibly throw them out of World Cup qualifying, and his Uefa counterparts will eventually have to do the same but with Spartak Moscow in the Europa League.

It’s tragic when you think you know someone and they turn out to be the exact thing everyone has warned you about.

Here’s the truth. For a very long time, the sporting world, at some stage, has stood back and let Russia conspire, manipulate, bribe, cheat and throw their weight around.


After the incredible reports started to emerge about state-sponsored doping, the IOC jumped through so many hoops to ensure Russia had the opportunity to compete in some capacity.

Sure, the athletes technically were only wearing white, blue and red, competing under some variation of the word Russia and their anthem was replaced by Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto. The IOC really did their best given the horrible circumstances, and I'm sure Thomas Bach personally hand-delivered that message to Putin himself.

How about football, then? Gianni was super excited to announce that Football Kenya Federation and the Zimbabwe FA were banned because of government influences. For context, the government intervened after CAF and Fifa failed to properly investigate claims of fraud in Kenya and claims of sexual harassment in Zimbabwe.

Infantino, however, understands the powerful of football. He did have the liathróidí to stand up in front of the Council of Europe and suggest the proposed biennial World Cup would stop migrants fleeing for their lives by risking everything to travel across the Mediterranean. It's unconfirmed how exactly migration and football are related, but always two steps ahead, Gianni will surely have the answers.

Uefa also took swift action. Sure, it was impossible to take seriously the 'no to war' or 'peace please' during games that were brought to you by Gazprom, but it showed the growing gulf between those in power who don't know right from wrong versus those at the bottom who have suffered because of football's desire for money, no matter what the cost.

The players and fans were brave. A lot of reactions aren’t feel-good did-my-part went-to-McDonalds-after protests, but were heartfelt and made it clear that these players are by-products to sportswashing.

Perfect distance

And what about Roman Abramovich? Mr A to Putin himself, Chelsea owner and Russian oligarch to the rest of us.

While Abramovich himself is a degree of separation from the Kremlin, it's hard to take it seriously when he tries to distance himself from Putin while volunteering himself for peace talks at the Belarussian border. I'm sure Vladimir would let any old average Russian oligarch take charge to co-organise peace talks, so fair play to Roman for trying to do so.

Now there’s a war, an invasion, an attempt to strip democracy apart piece by piece, and nobody has time for football or sport pretending it’s really going to think about its place between the powerful and powerless.

Lives are being lost, and we all know the power of bad news when it's geographically closer to your doorstep. Saudi Arabia/United Arab Emirates attacking Yemen daily is the perfect distance away for you to not think about it, but Ukraine is right there.

We know sportswashing has been going on right under our noses. Few cared overly when it was happening in Europe, where democracy and freedoms are the supposed norms rather than the privilege. But it happened in Europe, and we all saw it. Russia was growing and bolstering itself throughout the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Sochi 2014 and during the Fifa World Cup in 2018.

Gianni sat there, Thomas Bach sat there, and Ceferin sat there, all next to a gleaming Putin. Putin didn’t cripple his own economy, dope his own athletes and keep the troublemakers in Russia at bay for nothing. He did it for the world to see.

We were all brought along for the ride while he plotted and planned behind the scenes. He did it to look cool, relatable, and a typical leader, the same way his advertisements in Russia consist of him getting a black belt in judo, giving Steven Segal citizenship and riding horseback topless.

Sport was just too greedy and too self-serving to see this. We all were distracted by the tiny toy. Future governance, laws and policies have to be drafted to stop this from happening. Sport shouldn’t be a tool for the powerful, and it should never take the voice away from the powerless.