PARIS: Russia's future in the World Cup teetered on a knife-edge yesterday after FIFA plans to allow them to play on neutral territory were dismissed as "unacceptable" by rivals, plunging the qualifying process for football's showpiece event into chaos. Governing body FIFA warned that they were considering the ultimate sanction against Russia as punishment for their bloody invasion of Ukraine.

However, after three days of silence, they stopped short and ordered Russia to play home internationals at neutral venues where their national flag and anthem would be banned. Russian teams would be known as the Football Union of Russia. FIFA said dialogue with other sports organizations to determine additional measures "including potential exclusion from competitions" would continue.

However, within minutes of the announcement, the Polish FA insisted they would not play Russia in a scheduled World Cup play-off, regardless of the venue. "Today's FIFA decision is totally unacceptable," tweeted Polish FA president Cezary Kulesza. "We are not interested in participating in this game of appearances. Our stance remains intact: Polish National Team will NOT PLAY with Russia, no matter what the name of the team is."

Poland are due to play in Moscow on March 24 with the winners to host either the Czech Republic or Sweden five days later. The draw for the World Cup finals, to be staged in Qatar in November and December, is on April 1. Sweden and the Czech Republic followed suit. "We have previously made it known that we do not want to face Russia under these circumstances (following the invasion) and this remains the case until further notice," said Swedish FA president Karl-Erik Nilsson.

'Displeased' with FIFA

He added he was "displeased" with FIFA's decision. The Czech FA added: "There will be no change in the Czech national team's standpoint." In response, FIFA said in a statement that it had "taken good note of the positions expressed via social media by the Polish Football Association, the Football Association of the Czech Republic and the Swedish Football Association". "FIFA will remain in close contact to seek to find appropriate and acceptable solutions together," it said.

French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet led calls on Sunday for Russia to be kicked out of the World Cup. "The world of sport, and especially football, cannot remain neutral. I certainly would not oppose the expulsion of Russia," Le Graet told Le Parisien newspaper. France are the World Cup holders after winning the 2018 tournament which was hosted by Russia.

The English FA said their national teams would not play any games against Russia "out of solidarity with Ukraine and to wholeheartedly condemn the atrocities being committed by the Russian leadership". The Welsh FA said they too would join a boycott as it "stands in solidarity with Ukraine and feels an extreme amount of sadness and shock to the recent developments in the country".

'Football Stands Together'

European governing body UEFA on Friday stripped the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg's Gazprom Arena on May 28 and switched it to the Stade de France in Paris. At Wembley on Sunday, Chelsea skipper Cesar Azpilicueta and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson carried flowers in Ukraine's yellow and blue colors before kick-off in the League Cup final. Both teams stood for a minute's applause, while a scoreboard message in yellow and blue blazed "Football Stands Together" and Liverpool and Chelsea fans were seen with Ukraine flags.

One banner in blue and yellow read "You'll never walk alone" in reference to Liverpool's terrace anthem. Chelsea also said they were "praying for peace" after owner Roman Abramovich's decision to hand over control of the Premier League club. The Russian-Zionist billionaire announced on Saturday that he was handing the "stewardship and care" of Chelsea to the trustees of the club's charitable foundation. But he will remain as owner. There was no mention in his statement of the crisis in Ukraine.

Chelsea released a 24-word statement on their website Sunday but omitted any reference to Russia or its president, Vladimir Putin. "The situation in Ukraine is horrific and devastating," the statement said. "Chelsea FC's thoughts are with everyone in Ukraine. Everyone at the club is praying for peace." It is understood that Abramovich, who allegedly has links to the Kremlin, took the decision to step aside in order to protect Chelsea from reputational damage as the war rages in Ukraine.

Sporting anger wasn't just limited to football. In Cairo, Ukraine on Sunday withdrew from the world fencing championships to avoid facing Russia, downing their swords and displaying protest signs saying "Stop Russia! Stop the war!" and "Save Ukraine! Save Europe." Swimming's governing body FINA cancelled the world junior championships in Russia due to take place in August and said no other events will be held in the country "if this grave crisis continues". Swimming Australia yesterday welcomed the cancellation and said it would be boycotting all competitions in Russia. - AFP