The news that the England football team will not be followed to Ukraine by the UK government for the forthcoming European championships is widely seen as a stern diplomatic snub for Ukraine’s increasingly autocratic regime. Moreover, the UK is not the first government to announce its boycott: several countries including Germany decided in recent months to stay away unless the human rights situation improved. The President of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, also announced that an EU delegation wouldn’t be going.
Why the fuss? In October 2011, Ukraine’s former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, was jailed for seven years, for “abusing her office” by acceding to a gas deal with Russia while she was Prime Minister. For a while, it seemed as though her nemesis, Viktor Yanukovych had finally vanquished the Orange Revolution that had booted him out of office in 2004. He had fought a close presidential battle in 2010 (widely accepted as fair), and beaten Ms Tymoshenko. Now in power, he managed to throw her into jail (or rather, a female penal colony) in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine. Five other members of her former government are also incarcerated.
Mr Yanukovych must have forgotten last October that his country was set to host the world’s second most prominent international football competition, with all the media and political attention that comes with it. While busy consolidating his power, he is now being exposed for increasingly dictatorial tendencies. Ms Tymoshenko is now seen as a martyr for freedom, and her beatings while in prison have caused outrage. Hence the political boycott from west European government for the tournament.
Sport and politics clearly do mix. Whether they should (or should not) is a separate question. By announcing that it won’t attend, the UK, German and other governments are sending a strong signal that a sporting celebration cannot be used to excuse autocratic behaviour.
And yet the next World Cup, after Brazil in 2016, will be in Russia in 2020. It is conceivable that Vladimir Putin might still be President then, and all the human rights abuses that have characterised his reign might still be continuing (not least in Chechnya). Would western governments be ready to face the diplomatic standoff that would follow a boycott there? And how about tolerant, democratic Qatar, in 2024?
It is a good sign that western governments are ready to boycott Ukraine in the light of the deteriorating political situation there. But if they were really serious about sending a message, would it not be even better to hold their teams back? A similar scenario happened with the Zimbabwe cricket team, though the abuses in that country were much more stark. I realise this suggestion might not be popular: football is a great source of entertainment for many people (including some of our editors!). But aren’t some things worth more than entertainment? What if, like a provision for joining the EU, holding a football tournament included some political conditions? UEFA, the European football authority, has said that the encouragement of greater openness is a factor in deciding who to award the tournament to, but if so, it sees thing the wrong way round: a country should commit to openness and tolerance before it wishes to be considered for hosting a major sporting event, not after it has been awarded it. Ukraine appears to be going backwards in this regard.
Whether the conditions for a full boycott are met in the case of Ukraine is debatable: the offences committed are not as egregious as in Zimbabwe, or South Africa under apartheid, where boycotts were actually carried out. People now generally accept that a boycott of Hitler’s Olympics would have been justified too. Mr Yanukovych may not be quite as nasty as those rulers, but his autocratic tendencies should be halted with a credible threat of a boycott that would lead to total embarrassment.
I suggest this, but I know it is a pipe dream, given the current state of football’s governance. While UEFA is responsible for hosting the European championships, FIFA is the world governing body that is the parent of all regional authorities. It is a colossal, money-making monopoly, often accused of corruption, and which is led by a man widely derided even by those within football, and yet who seems impossible to dislodge – at the last ‘election’ for President, Sepp Blatter was the only person on the ballot! With a rotten organisation like this, one can only be cynical about the prospects of greater values ever being considered by the football world’s governing elite.
The tournament will go ahead, and most people will probably forget before long that there was a bit of fuss about Ukraine’s political situation (both England and Germany might be knocked out in the group stages anyway). That is a pity, but a small political gesture like this will not be forgotten by Mr Yanukovych and other thuggish autocrats like him. What lessons football’s governing bodies take from this episode though, is anyone’s guess.