Report: FIFA Rejects Zelensky Request to Speak at World Cup Final

The international soccer organization FIFA denied a request from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to address viewers of Sunday’s World Cup final in Qatar, the left-wing outlet CNN reported on Friday.

Zelensky reportedly requested to send a “message of world peace” to soccer fans through the tournament, one of the most watched events in the world, but FIFA did not agree to allow it. CNN did not specify if Zelensky sought to discuss the ongoing invasion of his country by Russia, nor if the suggested appearance would happen live. It also did not identify any sources for a story other than “a source.”

The one unnamed CNN “source” appeared sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause, shaming FIFA for failing to “use its platform for the greater good” by giving Zelensky time to address its audience. The source also claimed that the Ukrainian government was still in “talks” with FIFA; Ukraine’s soccer team did not make it into the World Cup and it is unclear what other topics the “talks” would cover. The leak to CNN would thus serve to pressure FIFA into potentially walking back its refusal to Zelensky.

Russia first invaded Ukraine long before Zelensky became president – in 2014, colonizing its southern Crimea region – but greatly escalated its direct military hostilities in the country in February of this year. Zelensky has prioritized galvanizing international support for Ukraine’s cause by making consistent public appearances in Western venues and attracting news attention with celebrity visits to Kyiv, interviews with Western pop culture personalities, and a controversial photo shoot with the fashion magazine Vogue. Last week, Time magazine announced it had chosen Zelensky and the “spirit of Ukraine” – represented in part by Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés – as its “person of the year.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife did a photo shoot for Vogue while war is waged in Ukraine. (@voguemagazine via Instagram)

Zelensky has also attempted to appear at a wide variety of international venues, succeeding at securing speaking time at the Grammys and the Cannes Film Festival this year. Outside of the Anglophone West, however, his efforts have faltered, most prominently when the South American trade bloc Mercosur rejected a request from the leader to address its summit this year. Ukrainian authorities have also largely failed to attract support for their cause from many African countries, which have forged close security and economic ties to Russia.

If true, CNN’s report follows news this week that Zelensky also reached out to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), urging it to ban Russia from participating in its events. The Russian Federation had previously lost the ability to participate in Olympics events with its own flag, leaving athletes to use a neutral flag, after evidence surfaced of large-scale use of performance-enhancing chemicals by Russian athletes.

“Since February, 184 Ukrainian athletes have died as a result of Russia’s actions. One cannot try to be neutral when the foundations of peaceful life are being destroyed and universal human values are being ignored,” Zelensky reportedly asserted.

The IOC does not currently appear to be exploring a full ban on Russian athletes at its events.

FIFA has not addressed the CNN report at press time. The organization has faced intense global criticism for the better part of a decade in response to granting Qatar, a repressive sharia state, hosting privileges for the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament. Human rights activists and journalists have documented extensive abuses committed by the Qatari government, from the torture and gang-rape of suspected LGBT people to abuses of migrant workers that critics say are tantamount to slavery.

On Friday, speaking at his last press conference before the World Cup final on Sunday, FIFA President Gianni Infantino condemned human rights defenders as insufficiently “respectful” of soccer.

“It’s not about prohibiting or not prohibiting. It’s about respecting regulations; we have regulations which say on the field of play, you play football, and that’s what we did,” Infantino said.

“When it comes to the pitch, to the field of play, you need to respect football, you need to respect the field of play, and these regulations are exactly there for this reason,” Infantino said of the rules that bar soccer players and spectators in Qatar from wearing pro-human rights messages on their persons during the World Cup.

The FIFA president went on to claim that anyone attempting to hold Qatar accountable for human rights abuses was being rude to spectators who “just want to spend 90 minutes or now 100 minutes or 105 minutes or whatever without having to think about anything else than just enjoying a little moment of pleasure and joy or at least emotion.”

Infantino applauded Qatar for holding the “best World Cup ever,” calling the event an “incredible success on all fronts.”

At least three journalists have died during the course of the World Cup – American writer Grant Wahl, British television producer Roger Pearce, and Qatari photojournalist Khalid al-Misslam – in addition to the between 400 and 6,500 people estimated to have been killed working on the construction of facilities to hold the event. FIFA authorities placed condolence books in media centers throughout game venues this week for journalists to say goodbye to the colleagues they lost.

A tribute to journalist Grant Wahl is seen on his previously assigned seat at the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between England and France, at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2022. Wahl, one of the most well-known soccer writers in the United States, died early Saturday Dec. 10, 2022, while covering the World Cup match between Argentina and the Netherlands. (Graham Dunbar/AP)

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