A diplomatic faux pas

Kabelo Dipholo
IN EUROPE: The Mares

Can Mares/Russia friendly put a strain on Botswana/US relations?

A friendly match between the ladies’ national football team The Mares against Russia on Tuesday could be a source of an embarrassing diplomatic moment for Botswana.

The Mares took part in a tournament in the Antalya Women’s Cup tournament in Turkey featuring FC Zurich and the Russian national team.

The local girls who are preparing for the WAFCON finals in Morocco in August brushed aside the Switzerland side 2-0 before falling 4-0 at the hands of the Russians on Tuesday.

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While this was a good preparatory match ahead of the WAFCON finals, playing against Russia is today an act frowned upon by the international community since FIFA’s blanket ban on the East European nation.

On the 28th of February 2022 FIFA Council and UEFA Executive Committee decided together that all Russian teams, whether national representative teams or club teams, shall be suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions until further notice.

This resulted in Russia missing out on both the men and women’s World Cup in Qatar, and New Zealand respectively despite having qualified.

Despite this ban, a defiant Russia continued to play against nations like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Iraq. This week the Russians added Botswana to the list.

Minister of Youth, Gender, Sport and Culture Tumiso Rakgare was bemused when asked about the friendly match and its implications. “I wasn’t aware of the match,” said Rakgare.

The Minister said had he known, he would have discussed it with the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lemogang Kwape for diplomatic reasons. “The match was played without our knowledge please talk to BFA,” he said.

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Reached for comment Minister Kwape who is on a working trip to Kenya said he was also not aware of the match. “Let me consult from Minister Rakgare and I’ll get back to you,” he said.

While the two legislators seem to be in the dark about the Mares’ exploits in Europe, Botswana Football Association (BFA) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Mfolo Mfolo is adamant that due diligence was done before securing a friendly against Russia. “We got permission from FIFA. We sent a request, and it was granted,” revealed Mfolo.

He said he does not see how this could cause diplomatic tension between Botswana and other nations. “Football is all about love. That is why you’ll see Iran facing USA,” he said.

On why the government was not aware of the friendly match, Mfolo was brief and firm. “Football is apolitical,” he said.

Responding to a questionnaire sent to them, the American Embassy Deputy Public Affairs Officer Dominick Tao referred The Voice to four joint statements made by the US and a collective of like-minded nations on their position on Russia’s unprovoked and unjustifiable war of choice against Ukraine and international sport.

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Part of the joint statements demanded that Russia and Belarus not be permitted to host, bid for, or be awarded any international sporting events.

Individual athletes selected by Russia and Belarus, administrators and teams representing the Russian or Belarusian state should be banned from competing in other countries, including those representing bodies, cities or brands that are effectively representing Russia or Belarus, such as major football clubs.

The US and her allies further encouraged the international sport community to continue to show its solidarity with the people of Ukraine, including through supporting the continuation of Ukrainian sport where possible.

“In cases where national and international sports organizations, and other event organizers, choose to permit sports people from Russia and Belarus to participate in sporting events, it should be clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states. The use of official state Russian and Belarusian flags, emblems and anthems should be prohibited,” reads part of the statement.

The US also called on all international sport federations to endorse these principles.

The US is known to not take kindly to nations that seem to cozy up to Vladimir Putin’s country.

In February last year, Joe Biden’s administration did not take kindly to South Africa’s 10-day joint military exercise with Russia and China.

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The joint naval exercises coincided with the one-year anniversary of the Kremlin onslaught on Ukraine.

Botswana has been playing a balancing act in her diplomatic relations with both the USA and Russia.

While President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s government has voted four times against the Russians at the United Nations, the country has never come out to directly condemn Vladimir Putin’s nation regarding the Ukraine war.

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The two nations have enjoyed cordial relations since the early 70s, with the Russians opening an Embassy in Gaborone in 1976.

Regarding The Mares’ participation at WAFCON finals in Morocco, Ambassador Howard Van Vranken was very brief. “Pula! Let’s go Mares!”

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