Updated: Jul 18
In a year with the FIFA Men’s World Cup on the horizon, it’s normal for moments that spark widespread debate among supporters to appear in the buildup to the tournament. The typical chaos that precedes each World Cup appears when core players of competing nations place themselves at risk of missing the World Cup due to public disagreements with their managers. These disagreements are generally the result of the manager’s belief in the player’s lack of commitment and dedication demonstrated when playing for his country – traits paramount for members of a team hoping to represent their nation with pride in their World Cup games. However, for a World Cup of multiple firsts, it seems fitting that the most recent moment to spark debate amongst the media and supporters is certainly a first in its own right.
On June 20, it was revealed that Polish left back Maciej Rybus would be omitted from Poland’s World Cup roster due to his recent decision to remain in the Russian first division for the forthcoming season. The statement released by the Polish Football Association indicates that, due to Rybus’ current club situation, manager Czesław Michniewicz would not take him into account when “determining the composition of the team” for the winter tournament in Qatar.
The decision taken by the Polish FA stems from the nation’s staunch support of Ukraine amidst the ongoing invasion by Russian forces. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, the Polish national team has expressed their desire to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainians – a desire which ultimately led to their decision to not play their originally scheduled World Cup qualifier against Russia. Shortly following the decision of the Polish FA to refrain from competing against the Russians, FIFA issued a statement allowing foreign nationals playing for Russian clubs to “unilaterally suspend their employment contracts until the end of the season in Russia.” This initiative was established by FIFA for the purpose of affording foreign players who wished to leave Russia amidst the ongoing conflict the opportunity to work and receive a salary, and it provided an avenue on which the Polish FA could capitalize by encouraging their Russian-based players to find new employers.
Nevertheless, Rybus, who has a Russian wife and has lived in the Russian capital for five years while playing for Lokomotiv Moscow, decided to forego the encouragement of the Polish FA in favor of staying in Russia to sign for Spartak Moscow. Unfortunately for Rybus, this decision means that he has now lost his opportunity to represent his country at this winter’s World Cup. And unfortunately for Poland, their decision to omit Rybus from the roster means that they are without one of their more experienced defenders as they attempt to advance out of a group that includes Saudi Arabia, Mexico & Argentina.
Upon reflection, the situation surrounding Maciej Rybus is an unprecedented statement sent to a player by his nation’s governing federation. Never before has a player of Rybus’ status been withheld from their national team solely due to the country in which their club resides. Consequently, the severity of the situation certainly brings some interesting legal questions to light. For instance, could Rybus have standing to bring a lawsuit against the Polish FA on any grounds of employment-based discrimination? Furthermore, does the Polish FA offer its players a payment structure similar to that in the recently agreed CBA for US Soccer, in which players receive bonuses in exchange for World Cup appearances? If so, could Rybus argue that he is being withheld from payments that he, as a regular contributor to the Polish team in major tournaments, would otherwise receive simply because he is employed in Russia?
These questions are difficult to answer, as are attempts to find pertinent information on the prospective payment structure of the Polish FA. Regardless, the fruit of these potential claims will likely not be of great significance to Rybus at the moment. As a result of his employer’s home country, Rybus has lost what could be his final opportunity to realize every soccer player’s biggest dream – representing his country at the World Cup.
Bryce Goodwyn is an incoming 1L at Regent University School of Law. While at Regent, he will be a member of the Honors Program and will work as a Dean’s Fellow during his 1L year completing research and administrative work. He also formed part of the recently established National Sports Legal and Business Society as the Regent University Chair. He can be found on Twitter @BryceGoodwyn and on LinkedIn as Bryce Goodwyn.