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Why playing Belarus, co-aggressor in Ukraine, doesn’t sit well with India | Football News – Times of India


Should India play Belarus, fellow aggressor in the Ukraine invasion, in the football friendly at Bahrain on Saturday? One is still not sure where to stand on this. The Indian national team, ranked 104 in the world, is generally so starved of any international action that anything that comes its way is welcome, and thus the mind says, ‘Go ahead, in any case sports and politics shouldn’t mix.’ But the heart tugs you back to our time-tested, perhaps forgotten concepts of solidarity.
India coach Igor Stimac, a former Croatian international who himself would have witnessed conflict in the 1990s Yugoslav war, and his team have been granted two friendlies – hosts Bahrain and Belarus on a neutral venue – as preparation for the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers starting in June this year. In another world, this would have meant invaluable exposure and can still prove to be, but also these are different times.
A slew of sporting sanctions and boycotts are staring hard at both Russia and Belarus. The international sporting community has swiftly banned Russia from most sporting arenas, they are still a little lenient with Belarus despite their clear complicity in the invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. The UEFA, football’s European governing body, has ruled that Belarus cannot host any matches but can play on neutral venues, in this case Bahrain, and even when they do, no fans will be allowed to attend.
Does this tiny legalese offer India that little window of validation then to play Saturday’s friendly guilt-free? Does the dire need for footballing engagement outweigh our once-famed moral standing over war, conflict, occupation, apartheid? Or is geo-politics only a matter of present-day convenience? This is only a friendly, a match of little consequence for you to be caught in a tangle of moral and ethical dilemma, but then India has stood up far stronger when the stakes have been much higher.
There was a time when India didn’t wait for the international sport governing agencies to spell out the boycotts and then toe the line. We led the world in it. In the 1970s, the western world, increasingly wary of displeasing the white South African government and their nakedly open policy of apartheid, dithered over banning their Davis Cup teams. First the International Tennis Federation (ITF) banned them in 1970 after black US player Arthur Ashe led the revolt against playing them. Astonishingly, they were reinstated in 1973, conveniently placed in a zone where other African nations didn’t figure.
India, however, who took the greatest stand in this, a symbolism that may have cost us a well-deserved Davis Cup title, when in 1974 they refused to travel to South Africa and play them in the final. In a sense, it all worked out for the western world and their ‘eyes shut’ policy over South Africa – only a year after they were conveniently allowed back in, they were indeed Davis Cup winners. For India, the young Amritraj brothers – Anand and Vijay – perhaps in the prime of their form and to this day, could be forgiven for perhaps grudging a golden chance at tennis glory taken away. Yet, India’s stand was almost Ali-esque in nature even if today is relegated to just a footnote. Three years later, the famous Gleneagles Agreement came into force effectively ruling out South Africa from all sport. By 1979, the ITF was forced to completely ban South Africa from the Davis Cup that stood till the end of apartheid rule in 1992.
It didn’t end there. If 1974 was against South Africa’s unjust regime, 1988 was solidarity for Palestine. Drawn with Israel in a World Group play-off, the Indian government refused to allow the team to travel to Tel Aviv for the tie. Incensed, the ITF threatened expulsion and penalties. “If India withdraws, they would be suspended from next year’s competition. Any fine would have to be determined by the Davis Cup committee,” their missive read. Vijay Amritraj may have felt a sickening sense of déjà vu, because also at stake was his direct entry to the Seoul Olympics later that year, where tennis was returning as a proper discipline. In the end, Israel was given a walk-over and India returned to life in the regional zones. Amritraj and Zeeshan Ali exited in the first round at Seoul.
India has had its own version of ping-pong diplomacy with Israel. They had debarred them from participating in the 1975 and ’87 world table tennis championships and even didn’t invite them to the 1982 Asian Games. One little-known episode occurred at the 1989 world championship in Dortmund, where the Indian team refused to play the Israelis in the group stage. It is significant in that it briefly united traditional political foes, India and Pakistan internationally. For refusing to play and making ‘political manoeuvres’ at the tournament both were relegated to the bottom of the group. In all this, India showed mature leadership when they invited South Africa for a goodwill series immediately on their reinstatement into international cricket in 1991.
The world is a different place today, even more so, global sport, a more visible, vocal, powerful medium. Sadly, the acts of protest and acts of solidarity are frowned upon, the market having reduced it to tokenism. The Indian policy of being unafraid to position sports in the geo-politics has taken a backseat. In truth, all the instances of India’s sporting boycott were directed by policy of the existing government of that time, but at all points we sided with the oppressed, not the oppressor. Maybe we are a different India today. We are closer today to Israel than ever before, our silence over the Russian aggression and posturing as an ally is conveniently down to close ties forged in the Nehruvian-era. Or maybe, it’s just the cold-minded prospect of discounted oil and a robust arms supply. It is quite evident that Ukraine finds little resonance in our current Indian foreign policy, just as Syria has hardly caused a ripple. Still, it is humanity to want to oppose an unjust war. India can afford to sacrifice a dozen football friendlies at that altar, and still come out a winner. The football is at our feet, we must know what best to do with it.





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