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Column: Infantino’s admiration of Putin leaves FIFA exposed

March 1, 2022 GMT
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, applauds beside FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the end of the 2018 World Cup final soccer match between France and Croatia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2018. FIFA and UEFA have today decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, applauds beside FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the end of the 2018 World Cup final soccer match between France and Croatia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2018. FIFA and UEFA have today decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, applauds beside FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the end of the 2018 World Cup final soccer match between France and Croatia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2018. FIFA and UEFA have today decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
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FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, applauds beside FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the end of the 2018 World Cup final soccer match between France and Croatia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2018. FIFA and UEFA have today decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)
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FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, applauds beside FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the end of the 2018 World Cup final soccer match between France and Croatia in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, July 15, 2018. FIFA and UEFA have today decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

LONDON (AP) — FIFA President Gianni Infantino remains the proud holder of the Russian Order of Friendship medal from Vladimir Putin. Not even the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has proved enough for Infantino to publicly distance himself from the autocratic leader.

The 2019 Kremlin ceremony where the state honor was bestowed on Infantino only served to cement a personal relationship with Putin.

“This is not the end,” Infantino gushed. “It is only the beginning of our fruitful cooperation and interaction.”

Infantino became even deeper entangled in Putin’s orbit, even when his judgment was being questioned for so zealously indulging the president’s vanity.

The Putin who hosted the World Cup in 2018 was not far removed from the Putin who ordered the military assault on Ukraine last week.

Russia had already annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014, the same year a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. The Dutch government has blamed Russia, though Moscow denies involvement.

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There also was the state-sponsored doping scheme and cover-ups that earned Russia a ban from international sporting events. Russian athletes can compete as neutral participants at events such as the Olympics and World Cup.

How wise was it of Infantino to tell Putin four years ago, “We are a team”?

Infantino seemingly chooses power and profit over morality when it comes to dealing with rulers he has a personal connection to.

After all, FIFA had even pressed ahead with staging the Beach Soccer World Cup in Moscow last year when the World Anti-Doping Agency ordered sports not to hold world events in Russia.

“A big well done,” Infantino said to Putin on his social media network of choice, LinkedIn.

Maybe Infantino is so hesitant to punish Russia or directly call out Putin for the unprovoked assault on Ukraine, let alone the doping scandal, because he’s determined to stick by his assertion made at the 2018 World Cup: “This is a new image of Russia that we now have.”

FIFA did not respond to questions about whether Infantino had used his line to Putin to urge the troops to be pulled out of Ukraine as the death toll and destruction mounts.

For days after the invasion began, FIFA dithered as the world demanded action from sport and UEFA removed the Champions League final from St. Petersburg.

Infantino did say last Thursday: “FIFA condemns, as well, the use of force by Russia in Ukraine.”

But Infantino did not heed the call from European football federations to suspend Russia over the weekend. Instead, there was only an edict that was barely a punishment, allowing Russia to continue playing as long as there was no flag or national anthem. That would have been a pre-war requirement anyway had Russia qualified for the World Cup if WADA’s punishment was fully enforced.

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Cezary Kulesza, the Polish football federation president, was aghast at the “disgraceful decision” from the FIFA Bureau, which does include the head of the European game.

“No indulgence for Russian aggression against Ukraine,” Kulesza said.

And within 24 hours, FIFA had relented, with a complete suspension of Russian teams on Monday, ending their bid for World Cup qualification.

What was curious in the FIFA statement was the absence of a reason for banning Russia, only a reference to hoping “the situation in Ukraine will improve significantly and rapidly.”

David Bernstein, who as English Football Association chairman worked to end Sepp Blatter’s scandal-plagued reign as FIFA president, has noted Infantino does seem to favor being close to “unsavory leaders.”

Particularly Putin.

“The relationship is just too close,” Bernstein told the BBC. “I think their reaction has done a great deal of damage to FIFA in particular, and not much credit to football generally.”

Infantino has provided sporting cover, even enabled, Putin’s brazen disregard for acting with integrity. Just as he has disregarded any concerns from human rights activists about regularly dropping in to visit Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, even starring in a propaganda video for the kingdom.

For an official renowned for his using his LinkedIn account to shower praise on national leaders on his global travels, Infantino omitted his own thoughts from the announcement on Russia’s ban.

Perhaps, there is that friendship with Putin to preserve. Infantino still has the medal — the symbol of it. And he’s not ready to substitute his teammate.

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Rob Harris is at https://twitter.com/RobHarris and https://facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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