Poland refused to play against Russia once. It may need to be redone.

One by one, late on a Friday night, Robert Lewandowski called his Polish teammates. They were scattered across Europe, and most of them...


One by one, late on a Friday night, Robert Lewandowski called his Polish teammates. They were scattered across Europe, and most of them were actively preparing for club games this weekend, but his question couldn’t wait.

They had all seen the images coming out of Ukraine: Russian tanks crossing the border, Russian artillery shelling towns and villages, Ukrainian refugees streaming out of the country, hundreds of thousands of them seeking refuge in Poland.

In a few weeks, Poland were due to face Russia in a crucial World Cup qualifier. Lewandowski had known immediately, once the invasion of Ukraine had begun, that he did not want the game at the end of March to continue. He had already called the president of the Polish football federation and specified it. Now he wanted to know how his teammates felt.

Without exception, the response was emphatic. Lewandowski doesn’t, he said in an interview, “have to convince anybody”. The conversation he had with Wojciech Szczesny, the Juventus goalkeeper who was one of Lewandowski’s Polish teammates for over a decade, was typical. “I just said, ‘I’m not playing the game,'” Szczesny said. “That was how he felt too. We all said the same thing.

After finishing his calls late one night in February, Lewandowski – the Polish captain and by far his country’s most high-profile athlete – passed on his conversations to the federation leaders. The players, he said, were unanimous: they would not take the field against Russia. It didn’t matter whether the match was played in neutral territory or whether Russia played it under a neutral flag.

They didn’t care that Poland was expelled from the World Cup. “We didn’t think about the consequences or if we could be punished,” Szczesny said. “We only care about the result. We were ready to forfeit. We weren’t going to play. »

The federation easily acceded to the players’ decision. They told Lewandowski that they would send a message to FIFA, world football’s governing body, the following morning to inform the organization of the Polish position. “We said that on Saturday we would announce that there would be no game with Russia at all,” Jakub Kwiatkowski, chief executive of the Polish men’s national team, told the BBC.

This decision seemed to force the hand of FIFA. The organization had, for much of the first week of the invasion, been painstakingly silent on whether Russia – or any of its club teams – would be allowed to continue playing either in the qualifiers for the World Cup or in competitions under the auspices of UEFA, the governing body of European football.

The Polish authorities had been trying for several days to force FIFA to commit to a position. They had already sent two letters to the governing body: one in which it confirmed that Poland would refuse to play matches in Russia, and one in which Sweden and the Czech Republic – the other two teams that prevent Poland from obtaining a place in the Mondial Cup this winter — has joined its boycott. “There was no reaction,” Kwiatkowski said.

It took several more days for FIFA to respond at all, and when they did, they”didn’t go far enoughsaid Szczesny. The original FIFA sanction prevented Russia from playing only on its own soil and under its own flag. Other than that, he would be free to compete. “It didn’t go over very well with the players,” Szczesny said. “It wasn’t enough.”

FIFA’s position quickly changed once the vehemence of the Polish players’ opposition became evident. “We sent them a very clear statement,” Kwiatkowski said. “We won’t face Russia at all, no matter what name they play under or where the venue is.” The following Monday, February 28, FIFA had completely reverse course. Russia and Russian clubs, he said, could no longer play in its competitions or UEFA events. A later decision would decree that foreign players in Russian teams would be allowed break their contracts and end the season elsewhere.

That it was the actors’ intervention that broke the bureaucratic deadlock was significant, especially as Russia prepares to challenge his sporting isolation before the Court of Arbitration for Sportthe secret, unelected judicial body that serves as a sort of voluntary high court for sporting matters.

Traditionally, despite all their fame, football stars have been reluctant to get involved in anything that could be considered a political issue. That has started to change, however, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the broader Black Lives Matter movement. Premier League players in England continue to take a knee before games, a move first adopted in European football by Bundesliga players in Germany.

Jordan Henderson, the Liverpool captain, led a campaign to help raise donations for the National Health Service at the height of the pandemic, after crude attempts by UK lawmakers to decry football players as greedy mercenaries. Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford has successfully forced the country’s Conservative government into a series of humiliating raids on the issue of child food poverty.

While football has staged various initiatives to show solidarity with Ukraine in the days and weeks following the Russian invasion, a number of players have also done so individually. For Szczesny – whose partner is of Ukrainian origin – it is a duty that accompanies their profile and their platform. “Social media helps us a lot, of course, but that means you have to be prepared to talk about these things,” he said. “We need to be among the first to stand up and speak out.”

Lewandowski, too, is adamant that sport and the people who play it have a “responsibility” to make their voices heard. “It’s important,” he said in an email. “Football is the most popular sport in the world. It’s more than just entertainment. But that’s more than part of our job. It is above all a question of modesty. »

It is unlikely that this sense of duty, this conviction will fade, whether or not Russia’s appeal succeeds before the CAS. Polish players were happy to sacrifice a place in the World Cup to make the right choice once. There’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t do it again.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Poland refused to play against Russia once. It may need to be redone.
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