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The UK and Netherlands cancel FIBA World Cup qualifier games against Belarus and Russia, respectively. Is it the start of a “Cold War” in basketball?

The UK revoked the Belarusian men’s basketball team’s visa because, it hosted Russian troops before invading Ukraine. It comes after the Netherlands canceled a home game against Russia’s men’s basketball team for Sunday. And Russia’s women’s basketball team was unable to get into the USA recently for different reasons.

Priti Patel, the UK’s Home Secretary revoked the visas of the Belarusian men’s basketball team.
Photo by VICTORIA JONES/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

This is not a world affairs or international basketball site, so this piece isn’t directly about the Washington Wizards or Mystics.

But as you may be aware, the Entertainment and Sports Arena is hosting the FIBA Basketball World Cup American Qualifiers with the USA Basketball men’s national team hosting Puerto Rico and Mexico. The Americans defeated Puerto Rico on Thursday, 93-76 and are one step closer to earning a trip to the 2023 FIBA World Cup.

These same qualifiers are also happening in Europe, Africa and Asia. For Europe in particular, one notable western country’s government has refused to host at least one nation that cooperated with Russia in the current invasion of Ukraine. And another western European country canceled a game against Russia, in large part because of that invasion.

The UK revokes the Belarus men’s national basketball team’s visas before a World Cup qualifier game next week

On Saturday, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, announced that she revoked the visas of the Belarus men’s national basketball team, citing that the move was because the nation was “complicit” with the invasion.

The British government’s division of responsibilities differs from the U.S. In the UK, the Home Secretary’s office handles visas for non-Brits, not the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Office, which handles foreign affairs. In America, the State Department handles both visas for non-Americans and foreign affairs.

The UK, which participates as “Team Great Britain,” is in Group B of the qualifiers, is also participating with Greece and Turkey. The game against Belarus was scheduled for Monday in Newcastle and will be postponed for a later date.

Russia is also facing the heat in qualifiers where they played the Netherlands just one day after the invasion began

Russia, like Belarus, is also in a tough spot within the FIBA Europe community. The Russians hosted the Netherlands in Perm, a city in the northwestern part of the country on Thursday. The Russians won 80-69 in a Group H match after the invasion started. The match wasn’t without controversy in the Netherlands, due to the situation in Ukraine.

The Nederlandse Basketbal Bond (NBB or the Dutch Basketball Federation) wrote a statement acknowledging that while they felt uncomfortable about the situation, Perm was not close to the Ukrainian border (2,000 kilometers) there was no international sports boycott against the Russians. Therefore, they decided to play the game.

Niels Meijer, an NBB board member said to Dutch public broadcaster NOS that the Dutch team was also not in a position to simply refuse to play while in Perm. If they made a political statement like that in Russia, it would have been unclear as to what may have happened.

That said, the Dutch federation took a stand once the team and their staff returned to the Netherlands after Thursday’s match. They announced on Friday that the Orange Lions’ Sunday game against the Russians in Almere (a city about 20 miles east of Amsterdam) against Russia was postponed without the Netherlands’ government getting involved, also according to NOS.

The U.S. recently wouldn’t give Russia’s women’s basketball team visas for coronavirus vaccine reasons while tensions were rising

The decision by Patel in the UK and the NBB in the Netherlands follows a trend of decisions where national teams or governments are not letting Russia and/or Belarus play games in their countries. They follows the USA’s decision to not allow the Russia women’s national basketball team to play their FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup Qualifier games earlier this month in Washington.

Unlike the British and Dutch measures against Belarus and Russia, respectively, the American government did not grant visas to the Russians because the main coronavirus vaccine used in Russia (the Sputnik V) is not recognized in the U.S. All non-Americans entering the U.S. are supposed to be vaccinated with doses from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Sinovac. Covaxin, Covishield or Novavax. Also, the Russian invasion of Ukraine didn’t happen yet, though the American government gave public warning signs about it.

Will Russia and Belarus be boycotted by other countries in FIBA competition and/or by other sporting bodies? Should they?

Like nearly all of you, I am disturbed by the scenes in Ukraine where fighting is going on in Kyiv as Ukrainians are fighting for their sovereignty and dignity as a nation. Obviously, I wish the war never happened in the first place.

I haven’t seen a situation where much of the world has boycotted a country over starting an unprovoked war or helping another country do just that. The last time there were massive boycotts, I was just born in 1984. That was during the Los Angeles Olympics where the Soviet Union and other communist states, some of which are now in the European Union and NATO, boycotted in retaliation against the U.S. and other nations boycotting the 1980 Moscow games after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan the previous year. It feels like now that the USA, UK and Netherlands have refused to host or just cancelled games against Russia and Belarus, it’s a sign that this may grow into a “Cold War” in the months ahead where multiple countries may simply refuse to play Russia or Belarus because of the invasion.

In basketball, men’s EuroBasket will be held this summer in the Czech Republic, Georgia, Italy and Germany. Since Russia is in EuroBasket, will teams refuse to play them because of the invasion? Ukraine is also in the games, so will they be able to field a team? What if Russia plays and is matched against Ukraine at some point?

For the USA men’s national basketball team, they won’t be playing Russia or Belarus anytime soon, until next year’s FIBA World Cup perhaps. It will be interesting to see if they refuse to play the Russians and/or Belarusians should such a match come up. The Wizards have two players in Kristaps Porzingis and Deni Avdija who could play for Latvia and Israel, respectively.

And as for the American women’s basketball team, which Mystics guard Ariel Atkins is on, Team USA will be playing in Australia with Russia in this year’s FIBA Women’s World Cup, at least for now. That said, will the Australian government, which has been closely aligned with the west, also ban the Russians over vaccine visas, the invasion or both?

Sports and politics have become more intertwined in the last few years, especially here in the U.S. over social justice concerns. With Russia and Ukraine at war, it’s safe to say that international affairs will be part of the mix as well in the months ahead.

For more on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you may click here and here.