Commentary: MLS made the right move by blocking Jesús Ferreira's transfer to Russia

When Major League Soccer announced last week it was blocking a $13-million transfer that would have sent national team forward Jesús Ferreira from FC Dallas to Spartak Moscow of the Russian Premier League, it did the right thing. It put morals over money, chose caution over cachet and displayed the kind of courage and values so sorely needed — yet so sorely lacking — in international sports.

I know! I was surprised too. And it doesn’t even matter that the deal wasn’t really close before it stopped. In this case it was the principle that mattered most.

The league declined comment on the Ferreira situation, choosing to let its actions speak for themselves. But privately, people with knowledge of the decision confirm the transfer was nixed last week over fear for the player’s safety and because of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

A high-profile player such as Ferreira, a USMNT standout with dual nationality, a two-time MLS All-Star and the Golden Boot winter in the last CONCACAF Gold Cup, would be an inviting target for a Russian government that delights in jailing prominent U.S. citizens and holding them hostage.

Consider that Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been jailed for more than 10 months without trial, while Paul Whelan, a former Marine, has been imprisoned since 2018. Both have been accused of espionage, charges they and the U.S. government strongly deny.

But perhaps the most relevant example is that of basketball star Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic champion who played nine years in Russia without incident before being jailed two years ago on smuggling charges after customs officials found less than a gram of medically prescribed hashish oil in her luggage. Griner was detained a week before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and held for a time in a penal colony to extract concessions from the U.S. government.

And it worked, with the U.S. giving up convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout to win Griner’s release after 10 months.

Now comes Ferreira, 23, who, after seven years in MLS, deserves the international attention he’s getting. However, the deal with Spartak Moscow really wasn’t close, and neither the player nor his agents with the Wasserman Group had begun serious talks with the club. Still, the league made all that moot when it stepped in to block the transfer, which it could do because its single-entity structure means Ferreira is technically an employee of the league, not FC Dallas. As a result, all contracts and transfers must be approved by MLS, which feared Ferreira could also become a pawn of the Russian government.

No one knows that better than the Wasserman Group, which also represents Griner and was a tireless advocate for her during her imprisonment.

“We understand and respect MLS’ decision,” said Richard Motzkin, Wasserman’s executive vice president, who declined to publicly discuss Ferreira’s situation beyond that.

This isn’t the first time MLS has blocked a lucrative transfer to the Russian Premier League. In 2022, while Griner was still in prison, it halted a $5-million transfer that would have sent Red Bulls’ midfielder Cristian Cásseres Jr. to Lokomotiv Moscow. Last summer the Venezuelan signed with Toulouse in France’s Ligue 1 instead; Ferreira will no doubt sign with another team as well. Just not one from the Russian Premier League where only one American — Eugene Starikov, who was born in Ukraine but raised in Huntington Beach — has ever played.

But concern over the players’ safety wasn’t the only reason the transfers were halted, say those with knowledge of the league’s thinking. MLS simply doesn’t want to do business with a country that has become an international pariah by invading its neighbor. And this is where the league and its leadership deserve the most praise.

Immediately after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the governing bodies for most major international sports organizations acted in concert to punish Russia. FIFA and UEFA banned Russian national and club teams from competitions including the World Cup and Champions League. Formula One pulled the Russian Grand Prix from the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the International Ski Federation said it will not allow World Cup events to be held in Russia, the European curling championships and all International Tennis Federation events scheduled in Russia were either canceled or relocated while the International Chess Federation took Chess Olympiad out of Moscow.

That resolve has weakened. Last month the International Olympic Committee ruled that Russian and Belarusian athletes will be allowed to compete in this summer’s Paris Olympics as long as they have not publicly supported the war. And both FIFA and UEFA, the two most powerful sanctioning bodies in global soccer, announced last October they were relaxing their own bans on Russian teams, only to be forced to reverse course less than a week later after several member federations threatened to boycott events that included Russia.

There is an argument to be made that athletes in individual sports such as tennis and track and field are representing themselves and not their countries and, if they haven’t publicly supported the war, shouldn’t be punished for the actions of their government. Team sports such as soccer are different, however. Players there are representing a collective, be it a club or a country. And if that country is engaged in war crimes, its representatives shouldn’t be allowed to play games with the rest of the world.

That’s a relatively loose definition that could be seen to apply to other FIFA members such as Israel, Palestine and Iran, of course. But in the case of MLS and Ferreira, the focus is only on Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine touched off the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II, one that killed an estimated 200,000 people on both sides.

As a result, MLS’ decision to keep Jesús Ferreira out of the crosshairs is a wise one and its decision not to do business with Russia is a courageous one.

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