For the most part, the football governing body that a country operates under the banner of is set in stone – it’s simply a question of mere geography. Nations in Europe are governed by UEFA, North American countries by CONCACAF and so on. But those that straddle different continents are in the unique position of being able to switch between governing bodies in football, and Russia – hurt by their continuing exile from UEFA competitions – could be the first to make a major change.
A large swathe of the country is considered to be on Asian soil, and in fact some of Russia’s landmass extends further east than most Asian nations and even Australia. So, Russia can, in theory, move to the AFC governing body instead. It won’t surprise you to learn that this is a pretty rare situation, and precedents are thin on the ground. But could Russia turn their back on UEFA and join AFC instead?
Are Russia Still Banned from UEFA Competitions?
It was in February 2022 that UEFA banned Russia from its international and club-level competitions as a sanction for the country invading the Ukraine. The war continues to wager on, at the time of writing at least, and so that ban is yet to be rescinded by European football’s main body.
To make matters worse for the beleaguered nation, FIFA also took the step of banning Russia from their tournaments for the foreseeable future – meaning that Russia will not feature at the men’s or women’s World Cups until the situation is resolved.
Will Russia Resign from UEFA?
The footballing chiefs in Russia have been hurt by their exile from UEFA, and they believe that their tarnished reputation within Europe and the Western world as a whole is such that they may be better off cutting their losses and trying their luck in Asia instead.
“In the current geopolitical realities, the presence of the RFU [Russian Football Union] in UEFA contradicts the national interests of Russia,” so said Roman Teryushkov, the deputy of the government’s State Duma. “It is impossible to build sports friendship with countries unfriendly to us and with constant poking from the collective West.”
This could be considered to be posturing and peacocking – an act that Russia is not unfamiliar with in its various dealings with other nations, although there could also be some strategy involved.
The AFC qualification campaign is considerably easier than that of UEFA, and so Russia may feel that – assuming their FIFA sanctions are lifted – they will find a much easier path to future World Cups by switching allegiances to Asia.
Can Russia Legally Leave UEFA & Join the AFC?
There are no legal ties keeping Russia within the UEFA ecosystem. Back in 2006, Australia resigned from the Oceania Football Confederation to join the AFC. The Socceroos grew increasingly tired of FIFA’s unwillingness to grant the top OFC team an automatic berth in the World Cup, so they switched to Asia in a bid to make that pathway easier. They have qualified for every edition of the World Cup since.
If Russia is to successfully leave UEFA, they need the approval of two bodies: the confederation they are planning to join (in this case, the AFC) and FIFA’s Executive Committee.
They ratified Australia’s own switch to the AFC, with disgraced former president of FIFA Sepp Blatter revealing: “All the participants were happy with the move and this being the case, the executive committee approved it under the statutes.”
FIFA could, in theory, block the move if they believe Russia don’t have grounds for the switch to the AFC. Ironically, two of the highest-profile switches of confederation in the past have seen countries leave the AFC to join UEFA.
Israel were booted out of the AFC in 1974, as a result of numerous Muslim-led countries proposing to boycott games there in the wake of the violent conflict with Palestine. By refusing to play them Israel almost qualified for the 1958 World Cup by default, losing in a play-off against Wales, before it was decided they should leave the AFC – they first played in the OFC, before being welcomed as a UEFA member in 1991.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and were welcomed as an AFC member thereafter. Like Russia, Kazakhstan is a ‘trans-continental’ country, and so there were no legal barriers preventing them from joining UEFA when they applied for membership in 2002. No geopolitical reason was given, and it seems more likely that the decision was made in part so that Kazakh club sides could compete in the Champions League and other UEFA competitions.
That is one of the reasons that the Russian football federation would be taking a huge gamble if they were to leave UEFA as rumoured….