Analysis

Russia May Lose on the Field at the World Cup, but Putin Is Winning

The tournament kicks off in Moscow on Thursday and although no Western leaders will be in attendance, the Russian president will be surrounded by old cronies

Russian President Vladimir Putin walks before an inauguration ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, May 7, 2018.
\ POOL/ REUTERS

On Wednesday afternoon, at the end of the FIFA congress where soccer’s international governing body selected the venue for the 2026 World Cup Finals and patted itself on the back for the upcoming World Cup in Russia, FIFA President Gianni Infantino ended the proceedings by screening a short PR video. It had many images of children of all colors playing soccer, joyous fans in the stands celebrating goals, and meaningless slogans about mission and vision. There was one message: “A new FIFA.”

No one was saying it – especially not Infantino – but the famously corrupt organization is trying to draw a line beneath the multiple bribery scandals that have rocked the sport in recent years.

Above all, there was one name that no one was mentioning – a man who many considered a friend and ally for decades. A man who had made them rich: Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president for 17 years and now banished from the organization while he is investigated for corruption. But as the FIFA 2018 World Cup kicks off on Thursday evening in Moscow, Blatter is a very present ghost at the banquet. He will be there as a personal guest of the tournament’s host, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A man joggles with a ball in front the Saint Basil's Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow on June 9, 2018
FRANCK FIFE, AFP

Eight years ago, when FIFA made its doubly scandalous decision – fueled by many millions of dollars in bribes – to award the 2018 finals to Russia and the 2022 ones to Qatar, it was Blatter who was in charge of proceedings, and who many see as one of the main forces behind those decisions.

It was so important to Putin that he himself traveled to the congress in Switzerland and did something he never does in public. Despite being relatively fluent in English, the Russian president always make a point of speaking in public in his mother tongue. But at that meeting, he addressed the FIFA members in the language most of them understand. It was that important to him.

It is also important for Putin never to forsake his allies, which is why Russia is currently the only government (with the probable exception of Qatar) that is prepared to host the disgraced Blatter. Only last week, Blatter popped up on the Kremlin’s own propaganda channel, Russia Today, oozing charm in a friendly interview. Of course, he said he had done nothing wrong and that his only mistake had been to trust others.

On one point at least, he was truthful: When asked about the talk in some Western countries of boycotting the World Cup due to Russia’s actions, he answered that such boycotts would be unthinkable. “It’s not only the football; it’s a powerhouse there,” he said. “It is Russia’s powerhouse and here football and politics is together. It’s the World Cup that gives now Russia more power, and this powerhouse cannot be just boycotted.”

Commuters ride a World Cup themed metro car decorated with a picture of Soviet goalkeeper Lev Yashin in Moscow on June 13, 2018
YURI KADOBNOV, AFP

During his greeting address to the FIFA congress on Wednesday, Putin himself claimed there was no connection. “I would like to make special note of FIFA’s adherence to the principle of ‘sports outside of politics.’ Russia has always supported this approach,” he said.

Putin is keenly aware that a boycott of his World Cup could have happened, under not very different political circumstances. The West had reason enough to be angry at him after the invasion of Ukraine (at the end of the Winter Olympics he hosted in Sochi in 2014), Russia’s military intervention in Syria and the hacking operation allegedly directed by the Kremlin at the U.S. presidential election and perhaps also the Brexit referendum in Britain. And then there are the allegations directly connected to sports –bribery during the World Cup hosting bid and the wholesale doping operation of Russian athletes.

In March, following the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in England, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson threatened a boycott of the World Cup and said that Putin, like other dictators before him, would be using the tournament for his own political purposes. Johnson even mentioned the darkest historical example of all: Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympic Games in 1936.

The England team is still playing at the World Cup in Russia, but no official representative of the British government or its royal family will be there. Only a handful of foreign leaders will be attending Thursday’s opening ceremony in Moscow, none of them from the West.

People take a picture in front of a Zabivaka, the official mascot for  Russia 2018 football World Cup, in Nizhny Novgorod, on June 13, 2018
MARTIN BERNETTI, AFP

Long before there was a Russian election-hacking scandal, there was another corruption case involving the Kremlin and computers: When FIFA – forced by media reports and investigations conducted by the U.S. and Swiss authorities – finally carried out its own (sham) investigation, the Russian soccer federation suddenly lost the computers it had used for its bid. FIFA meekly accepted its claim that it had been using the computers of a private organization, which had later been “destroyed.” Interestingly, the organization was apparently financed by Roman Abramovich – Putin’s favorite oligarch, owner of Chelsea Football Club and, as of last month, officially an Israeli citizen.

Former Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko – the man behind Russia’s fraudulent World Cup bid and also allegedly the mastermind of the doping operation – is another ally whom Putin will not forsake. Despite the multiple allegations against him, Mutko was until last December still head of the tournament’s organizing committee. He remains Russia’s deputy prime minister and head of the national soccer federation. And despite international pressure and investigations, Putin has publicly refused to remove him from office.

There’s a feeling, though, that Putin is not going out of his way to make the World Cup quite such a show of force as he did with the Sochi Games four years ago. For a start, even though the World Cup is spread over 11 host cities, the state investment is reportedly some $12 billion. Though it is likely higher and there is also investment at the regional level, it is still much less than the sums wasted in Sochi – the most expensive sports tournament of all time, at an estimated $50 billion. There has also been less of an effort to paint the World Cup in nationalistic colors, and even the xenophobic Russian hooligans seem to have been reined in.

President Sepp Blatter and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a soccer ball during the official ceremony of handover to Russia as the 2018 World Cup hosts, 2014
AP

Some hope that, after 18 years in power, this is a more laid-back and pragmatic version of the Russian leader. After all, he has just won another six-year term with the expected landslide. He has secured, it seems, the survival of the Assad regime in Syria, while the world has given up all hope of seeing Russia retreat from the areas it conquered from Ukraine – including the Crimean Peninsula.

U.S. President Donald Trump called last week for Russia to be readmitted to the G-7, from which it was banished after its invasion of Crimea. Another G-7 (soon to be G-8 again?) member – the new populist government in Italy – supported Trump’s call. With more governments in the West leaning toward Moscow, Putin really doesn’t have to work too hard.

The one cloud on the Kremlin’s World Cup horizon is its own national side. Placed a lowly 70th in FIFA’s global rankings, it is the worst ranked team in the entire tournament. Thursday’s opening match, against Saudi Arabia – the second worst team in the tournament, ranked 67th – is the only match it has a realistic chance of winning.

As it stands, Russia is expected to join South Africa as the only host nation to fail to progress from the group stages. In 2010, the South Africans at least managed to muster a credible performance, drawing with Mexico and, astonishingly, beating France. Russia is likely to break that unwelcome record and become the host with the least points ever.

There is no apparent reason why a nation of 145 million people, where soccer is the favorite sport and where there is no lack of oligarchs willing to buy and invest in clubs, should be so poor. But the underlying reason – investment of the ready money in flashy stadia and aging foreign stars, rather than in long-term youth programs to foster local talent – has hobbled the national team.

Yet Putin doesn’t seem too bothered. As far he’s concerned, Russia is showing its muscle simply by hosting the World Cup. When asked last month at a financial conference who will win the tournament, his answer was clear: “The winners will be the organizers.”