MOSCOW-Four years ago, as hosts of the World Cup, Russians sang and danced in the streets together with football fans from all over the world. This year, Russian football fans weren’t even sure if they could actually watch the tournament in Qatar on TV.
Russian soccer players banned from Qatar 2022 World Cup: In February, FIFA and UEFA announced that Russian clubs and national teams had been banned from competitions “until further notice” after Moscow launched what it called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. But that didn’t stop FIFA from selling the right to broadcast the tournament to Russian state broadcasters for around $40 million.
On Monday evening I visited a Moscow sports bar where few people watched matches between England and Iran and the Netherlands and Senegal. One of the reasons may be that it was a working day. Another reason is that not many fans are willing to gather to see the competition their country has been thrown out of. The bar manager told me that there were no crowds on Sunday when the World Cup started either.
One of the bar patrons, Sergei, lamented: “When politics gets involved and countries are banned for no good reason, it doesn’t help sport, and especially football, to progress.”
Another guest, Karen, also expressed his disappointment at FIFA’s decision: “We’re going to watch the World Cup and enjoy football. But I’m against mixing politics with sport. Those who have devoted their lives to sport shouldn’t miss the opportunity to take part in international competitions.” His friend David Maisuradze agrees: “At least two or three teams in this World Cup are weaker than our national team. If they’re in Doha, why not Russia?” But he’s still keen to follow the competition. “Even if Russia participates, I’m not cheering for it. I’m not a fan of the Russian team; I’m a fan of beautiful, nice football,” he said, alluding to the disappointing performance of Russian footballers in international competition. (He’s a fan of Brazil.)
The memory of Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup seems unreal now, as does the quality of Russian football back then. (The national team reached the quarterfinals and made the fans really proud.) Before this World Cup started in Qatar, Russian media fantasized about what the national team might look like if they hadn’t been removed from the competition. “There is no guarantee that Russia could have beaten Poland in the playoffs.” (In March, Poland refused to play Russia because of the “special military operation”.) “But it’s hard to take the joy out of it to imagine what our squad could have looked like in Qatar,” wrote the Sports Express newspaper.
But last week the Russian side played their first two FIFA-sanctioned friendlies in a year – with Tajikistan on November 17 and Uzbekistan on November 20. Despite the expectations of the fans, Russia failed to score – both games ended in a draw. which led journalists and supporters to question the team’s abilities. “If we can’t beat Tajikistan, maybe it’s best that we don’t take part in the World Cup,” wrote Championat.com.
Peter, another football fan from Moscow, says Russia’s ban seemed inevitable given the political situation. “Previous half-measures that allowed Russians, including the ice hockey team, to compete under a neutral flag at Olympics were not very effective. The athletes were not disqualified from the competitions and their uniforms basically sported the Russian flag,” he said. “All major football associations have had to react to the current geopolitical circumstances.” Peter added that this time it might be more comfortable to watch the World Cup as he doesn’t have to be nervous about the performance of the Russian team.
While Russians will still have access to the World Cup, they will not be able to see matches in the English Premier League, which is considered one of the best football leagues in the world. In March, the league suspended its broadcasting deals with Russia in response to the “special military operation.” Football fan Maria said she watches matches on European streaming services, which she prefers not to name, and pays for access with a European bank card. “If the Russian team took part in the World Cup, I wouldn’t watch their games. I’m interested in English Premier League and La Liga and after watching their games it’s hard to appreciate Russian football,” she said. If you don’t have a foreign bank card or don’t want to bother with circumventing restrictions, watch pirated versions of the English Premier League. But most football fans I spoke to admitted they just stopped following English football matches. Among them is a football fan from Moscow, Vasiliy. “The EPL has lost enormous support among the Russians,” he thinks.
Other European associations that have canceled their broadcasting deals with Russia include the French professional football league, the Scottish Football Association and the Portuguese Primeira Liga. Russia’s main sports broadcaster, the state broadcaster Match TV, still has the rights to show the UEFA Champions League and the German Bundesliga.
A football fan from Moscow, Kirill, said that limited access to broadcasts of European football matches is the main reason he will not be following the World Cup closely. “I’m not excited, not because Russia is absent, but because I’ve lost interest in international and European football due to a lack of coverage,” he said.
Football games aren’t the only sports missing from Russian audiences. The National Hockey League suspended its broadcasting contracts with Russian agents. Formula 1 ended its contract with broadcaster Match TV and blocked its website in Russia. NASCAR races are no longer shown in Russia. The National Basketball Association has stopped distributing content in the region. Discovery stopped broadcasting its 15 channels in Russia, including Eurosport, which used to show tennis competitions. US Open Tennis Championships site is blocked to Russian users.
Meanwhile, Russians continue to watch international competitions that are still available to them. There is always a risk that more will disappear from TV screens after politicians in other countries demanded that sports leagues no longer be broadcast in Russia – or because Russia itself cuts them, as was the case with Germany’s Bundesliga soccer matches in April Displays against the “special military operation” at the Stadion.
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