Russians hear FIFA Congress plea from Ukraine to end the war

Russia delegate Alexey Sorokin, right, speaks to journalists end of the FIFA congress at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center in Doha, Qatar, Thursday, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) (Hassan Ammar, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

DOHA – The appearance by video of the head of Ukrainian soccer, wearing an armored vest from the streets of Kyiv, brought the impact of Russia’s war into the FIFA Congress on Thursday.

“We have regularly received sad news of the deaths of members of the Ukrainian football community,” Andriy Pavelko said in a recorded message to the gathering in Qatar including delegates from Russia.

“They have been killed by the aggressors’ rockets from one of the biggest army in the world. Football has taken a back seat in our country.”

Kyiv hosted the Champions League final only four years ago. Then the soccer world shifted to Russia in 2018 for a World Cup that FIFA President Gianni Infantino still celebrated Thursday as “a great success sportingly and culturally."

“Obviously it did not solve the problems of the world,” Infantino said. “It did not even solve the problems in the region. It did not create a lasting peace.”

Infantino did not mention the man he was filmed juggling a ball with and praising in 2018: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nor did Infantino blame or mention Russia in his speech.

There was a plea to “stop conflicts and wars” generally rather than specifically issuing a direct message to Putin, who awarded Infantino Russia’s Order of Friendship medal after the World Cup. And in the Doha audience was Alexey Sorokin, the chief executive of Russia’s 2018 organizing committee and former member of the FIFA Council.

There was an expression of regret from Sorokin but only that Pavelko “has these emotions” in the video address.

“It is difficult for them, we understand that,” Sorokin said. “But I’m here not to discuss politics or military activities or anything, I am here in the FIFA Congress.”

Russia won’t be in the draw for the World Cup on Friday after being disqualified from playing internationally by FIFA over the war. Ukraine can still qualify but its playoff semifinal against Scotland has been postponed until June with the hope the team will be in a position to return to the field by then.

For now, the priority for Ukraine is protecting the country from Russia as Pavelko told the FIFA Congress.

“Our children have suffered terrible psychological injuries. Perhaps football will help them forget the horrors of war,” he said as sandbags were being placed around a statue behind him in Kyiv. “I believe every word, prayer and action in support of Ukraine and against the war can stop it.

“We have no right to remain silent. Let there be no air-raid alarms in our cities, instead the songs of fans. Let the battles take place not in the streets with weapons but in crowded stadiums in fair football duel and let the spectators in the stands explode when their favorite team scores a goal, not the bombs.”

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