It’s rare that FIFA bans national teams from participating in the World Cup. So when soccer’s world governing body declared earlier this year that Russia would be banned from competitions—which includes this year’s tournament in Qatar—it was a major step. Russia has become an international pariah because of its war in Ukraine, and the sports arena is no exception.
“This is one of the few cases that we have so far in which a country has been explicitly banned for a political action,” says Mauricio Borrero, an associate professor of history at St. John’s University in New York and an expert on global soccer and Russia. It’s more common for national teams to get banned as a result of issues related to their football associations or third-party interference.
Below, some of the countries that FIFA banned at various points over the years, whether for political or other reasons.
In February, FIFA and UEFA banned all Russian clubs and national teams “until further notice” as a result of its war against Ukraine. Pressure had been mounting from other countries; many European teams, such as England, Poland, and Sweden had already said they refused to play against Russia. In addition to the Russian men’s team being barred from the World Cup, the women’s team could not play in this summer’s Euro 2022 competition and Spartak Moscow could not compete in the Europa League.
Kenya and Zimbabwe
Typically, countries are banned temporarily due to governmental interference or issues with the national federation overseeing the sport. That’s what happened with Kenya and Zimbabwe earlier this year. Kenya’s sports ministry shut down the Football Kenya Federation after allegations that funds had been misused. Zimbabwe’s Football Association was suspended by government officials following allegations of fraud and sexual harassment of female referees.
FIFA suspended South Africa in 1961 in response to growing calls from the anti-apartheid movement to boycott South Africa. The country’s law at the time banned mixed-race sports teams and required foreign countries participating in international competitions held in South Africa to send all-white teams.
Following their suspension from global soccer, South Africa was later banned from participating in the Olympics, international cricket, and the Davis Cup (a tennis championship). FIFA reinstated South Africa’s membership in the early 1990s when apartheid was dismantled; in 2010, the country hosted the tournament.
FIFA and UEFA banned Yugoslavia from playing in the 1992 European cup and the 1994 World Cup following U.N. sanctions amid the Serb-dominated government’s aggression in the Balkans, particularly toward the former republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Chile could not play in qualifying games for the 1994 World Cup held in the U.S. after a dramatic attempt to steal a spot in the 1990 tournament from their rival, Brazil.
Chilean goalkeeper Roberto Rojas appeared to be hit by a flare thrown from the stadium’s Brazilian section while Brazil was 1-0 up with 20 minutes left to play. A victory or draw would have secured Brazil’s World Cup spot. Although Rojas was seen bleeding and the game was abandoned, a subsequent photo revealed that he had not been hit by the flare; he had cut his own head while using a razor blade concealed in his gloves.
In 2015, FIFA alleged third party interference of Indonesia’s local soccer association by the government. Although the ban was lifted in 2016, it prevented the team from competing in the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers.
In 2016, Kuwait had to forfeit a qualifying match for the 2018 World Cup against Myanmar. FIFA had previously suspended the country’s football association, alleging government interference in the country’s local football association. The ban lasted for more than two years.
FIFA banned Mexico from participating in the 1990 World Cup held in Italy because they included four overage players in qualifying games for the 1989 World Youth Championship. The suspension lasted for two years.
In 2011, the team’s fans were violent during an Asian qualifying match against Oman. They threw rocks and glass bottles at the referee, Omani players, and the visiting coach. The Omani squad eventually escaped to the dressing room to stay safe. FIFA awarded Oman, already up 2-0 in the game, a victory that saw Myanmar eliminated from the 2014 World Cup. The Myanmar team was also banned from competing in the 2018 tournament, but the ban was lifted ahead of the tournament following an appeal.
Controversial decisions to let teams play
There are many historical examples where FIFA has not banned countries committing abuses. Notably, in the 1938 World Cup, Nazi Germany participated. In 1978, Argentina both participated and hosted the tournament despite a military coup two years earlier. The stadium where the World Cup final was played was only a few miles away from a military detention center where political prisoners were kept and tortured, Borrero says. “Some of the political prisoners later recalled hearing sounds from the stadium—people saying ‘goal’. It was one of those horrible, horrible situations,” Borrero adds.
This year, sweeping anti-government protests in Iran have led to calls from some activists, including Iranian athletes, to ban the national soccer team from the tournament (even if not all Iranians agree that a ban is the most effective form of protest).
But experts note that banning soccer teams based on their country’s political record can set a thorny precedent that may be applied unevenly since many countries engage in human rights abuses—such as India’s discrimination toward Muslims, Israel’s harsh treatment of Palestinians, or even host nation Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.
Borrero says that in the case of Iran, for example, a ban could have set a difficult precedent. “Where do you stop? Many countries have these issues.”