Russian goals: The troubling backstory behind the World Cup’s most controversial host

Russia’s first Fifa World Cup arrives amid a fragile geopolitical climate and an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the host nation. Even for Fifa, an organisation by now accustomed to heightened scrutiny, this summer’s tournament has brought unprecedented challenges.

Russian goals: The troubling backstory behind the World Cup’s most controversial host

The date is 2nd December 2010. The setting is Fifa’s Zurich headquarters. The atmosphere is tense. Leaders of the footballing world have gathered before a high-profile cast of politicians and royal dignitaries for a historic occasion: to decide the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cups.

For the first time in the tournament’s fabled 80-year history, the stewards of two consecutive editions are to be selected on the same day. With the USA having dropped out of the running to focus on 2022, the race to land the 2018 event is an all-European contest: Russia and England are up against joint bids from Belgium and the Netherlands, and the Iberian neighbours of Spain and Portugal.

It is an occasion that has been preceded by no shortage of controversy, with allegations of misconduct having surfaced periodically over several months. Amid the last-minute lobbying, speculation abounds. Support for Russia, the early favourite, appears to have subsided, while observers cannot say whether claims of malfeasance have dealt a mortal blow to the English effort. Both of their rivals are deemed to have secured backing in influential quarters, but how much and from whom remains a mystery.

After the four bidders deliver their final presentations, the 22 eligible voting members of Fifa’s ruling executive committee break for lunch, taking time to deliberate before a secret ballot is held, such has been Fifa’s way of conducting business. Meanwhile, in the halls of Fifa and in communities across the world, the soccer fraternity waits with bated breath.

Finally, Sepp Blatter steps up to the stage, casually assuming his role as Fifa’s dictatorial, immovable president. “In football we learn to win and this is easy,” the Swiss lectures, lavishing upon himself the kind of self-indulgence that has so typified his reign. “But in football we also learn to lose and this is not so easy.”

After what seems like an age, Blatter opens an envelope, smiles and raises its contents aloft. Somewhere in the room, the Russian delegation goes wild.

In Russia’s shadow

From the outset, Russia’s message has been promoted with unfaltering consistency. Throughout its eight-year journey to its maiden World Cup, the aim of its bid has been to convey a new image of Russia, one in which the country’s people, not its vast natural reserves of oil and gas, are portrayed as its greatest asset.

By convening roughly two million visitors in the name of the beautiful game, not to mention hundreds of millions of TV viewers besides, soccer’s most prestigious international occasion would help bring this enigmatic, misunderstood pariah back in from the cold, putting Russia’s tortured 20th century past to rest while thawing relations with its international counterparts.

“We believe we have a monumental opportunity to partner with Fifa to make history come alive,” chimed bid committee chief Alexey Sorokin, delivering one final pitch in the hours before his team claimed victory with 13 votes in the second round of voting, enough to secure an absolute majority. “For Russia the benefits are clear; for Fifa the benefits are access to new markets, new players and new fans.”

For the Russian organisers, the World Cup would bring prestige, infrastructural development and long overdue recognition, helping to showcase what they described as a “forgotten continent” whose outward-looking, multicultural society was in fact far more benevolent than its post-Cold War characterisation. But it would also serve a broader sporting agenda. Even before the votes of December 2010 were cast, the country was already in the midst of gearing up to welcome the Olympic world to the then little-known Black Sea resort of Sochi for the Winter Games of 2014. Longstanding concerns surrounding its dubious track record in areas like human rights, hooliganism, racism and doping mattered little; the prospect of two of the planet’s largest sports events heading to Russian shores in the space of four years had conspired to put this superpower back at the centre of the sporting universe.

Russian president Vladimir Putin speaks at the recent 2018 Fifa World Cup opening ceremony 

“We will build new stadiums and do our best to make the World Cup safe and enjoyable for everyone,” declared Vladimir Putin, an active promoter of the Russian effort. “We will allow all football fans to enter the country without a visa in order to enjoy the tournament and to get to know Russia and its history and culture.”

Could it be that Putin’s Russia was at last softening? Its pledge to open up appeared less a statement of intent than a sincere commitment to progress. But, as it transpired, any optimism would prove short-lived.

Within weeks of Russia’s triumph, allegations of vote-buying during the 2018 and 2022 bidding processes resurfaced. Rival bidders and disgruntled European officials claimed in interviews with the press that certain Fifa executive committee members had requested bribes in return for their support. A cloud of suspicion quickly descended.

Two years after Russia’s victory, Michael Garcia, an American lawyer and chairman of the investigatory chamber of Fifa’s ethics committee, began investigating the accusations. In a subsequent report, the full version of which would not be made public until June 2017, Garcia criticised the conduct of several figures involved in both bidding processes. Russia’s bid escaped largely without censure, however, although its team was admonished, but crucially not penalised, for leasing computers that were later returned to their owners and – conveniently for some – destroyed.

Could it be that Putin’s Russia was at last softening? Its pledge to open up appeared less a statement of intent than a sincere commitment to progress. But, as it transpired, any optimism would prove short-lived.

The report’s findings were clear: neither Russia nor Qatar, controversial winners of the 2022 World Cup, had employed undue influence to secure their respective tournaments. In short, the votes of 2010 would stand.

As the Garcia investigation unfolded, events elsewhere meanwhile snowballed. The closing ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Games, staged in February of that year, had not yet taken place when pro-Russian militias stormed the Crimean peninsula, eventually annexing the long-disputed Ukrainian territory and sparking international outcry. The invasion recast Putin’s Russia as public enemy number one in the west, with several foreign governments imposing financial sanctions against prominent Russian businessmen and companies, complicating matters for individuals and entities looking to do business in the country.

Exacerbating the situation still further, a series of high-profile cyber attacks from entities based in Russia were only fuelling international suspicion of the country’s motives. Then, against the backdrop of what had become a deeply fractured geopolitical landscape, came dumfounding claims of a state-sponsored doping programme the like of which sport had never seen.

The sensational revelations, first detailed in Richard McLaren’s damning report for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2016, and brought to the world’s attention by the Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory who had masterminded the whole operation supposedly at the behest of the Kremlin, sent shockwaves across the world of sport. The fallout saw scores of Russian athletes and officials first barred from the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, then the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games, as Russia’s reputation turned more toxic than at any time in its tainted sporting history.

Amid the finger-pointing and inevitable denials, Russia’s political and sporting elite were painted as villains, none more so than Vitaly Mutko, the country’s deputy prime minister and former minister for sport who would later find himself banned from all future Olympic Games for his alleged role in the doping conspiracy. Mutko, the head of the Russian Football Union (FUR), Fifa executive committee member and chairman of Russia’s bid, had been sat in the front row at Fifa HQ as Blatter announced his country’s victory in December of 2010. In the years since, he had been organising the 2018 World Cup as chairman of the local organising committee, a role he would be forced to relinquish in the wake of his Olympic ban.

Restoring trust

If the poisonous climate surrounding Russia has raised serious questions over its credibility as a World Cup host, Fifa itself has hardly fared any better. In hindsight, few within the federation’s hierarchy could have foreseen the furore ignited by the vote of 2010 and stoked by subsequent events.

The arrests of several high-ranking soccer officials and marketing executives in May 2015 made global headlines and sent Fifa into a spin, exposing a culture of corruption that had taken root over the course of several decades in the Americas. What would later be dubbed the ‘Fifa-gate’ scandal led to Blatter’s resignation, capping a catastrophic downfall for a seemingly untouchable Fifa stalwart who had only recently succeeded in securing reelection in spite of the tumult. The scandal also sparked lengthy legal proceedings in a US federal court, where some of those indicted would cut plea deals and receive convictions, including hefty fines and lengthy jail terms.

Fifa’s reputation, much like that of Russia, had hit rock-bottom. For Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, the scale of the crisis was such that the process of reforming the federation would mean fighting fires on multiple fronts. The Swiss had risen to power in February 2016 preaching amelioration, and after overcoming an ethics complaint of his own set about enacting his pledge accompanied by his handpicked aide, Fatma Samoura.

“There is always a great amount of international scrutiny when it comes to major sports events being held in any country – Russia is no exception to that,” Samoura, a former United Nations (UN) official hired by Infantino as Fifa’s secretary general in May of 2016, tells SportsPro. “While one might say there are many challenges, I like to think there are many opportunities as well.

“From my time with the United Nations, I learned that dialogue can make a real difference. Now at Fifa, I’ve learned that adding football to it makes it even more powerful. So no matter what challenges we face in Russia or elsewhere, we will make sure to sit down with the organisers and find a way to address any shortcomings and bring about positive changes.”

Fifa president Gianni Infantino has chosen to tread carefully around the contentious policies of Putin’s regime

Together, Infantino and Samoura have been forced to walk a political tightrope, caught between dealing with the fallout of the doping scandal and avoiding any animosity with the stewards of the next World Cup. It has, on reflection, been both a delicate balancing act and a challenging PR exercise, not least since it has put soccer’s top administrators in the unenviable position of maintaining ties with Mutko, whose spectre has continued to loom large over this summer’s tournament despite reducing his involvement in organising committee operations towards the end of last year. And there have been other challenges besides those relating directly to Russia. Despite the pair’s efforts to restore trust and credibility to Fifa, there are many who have voiced concerns that the federation’s institutional culture remains unchanged and that conflicts of interest continue to exist at the highest levels of governance. Much of the criticism has come from those who have witnessed that culture first-hand, and some of it has been directed at Samoura herself.

Earlier this year, the Senegalese faced an ethics investigation into her alleged family ties with a former international player working as an ambassador for Morocco’s ongoing bid for the 2026 World Cup, though she was swiftly cleared of any wrongdoing. Prior to that, Miguel Maduro – who was ousted as Fifa’s governance committee chair in May of last year after only eight months in the role – alleged that Samoura and Infantino attempted to block his committee’s decision to bar Mutko from joining Fifa’s highest decision-making authority, its newly named and enlarged Council, a move they feared would jeopardise this summer’s World Cup.

“It is normal that people are sceptical after everything Fifa went through,” accepts Samoura, commenting in emailed responses a little over a month out from kick-off in Russia on 14th June. “Our role is to make sure that wrongdoings do not happen again and that the principles of good governance and transparency are present in all areas of our operations.

There is always a great amount of international scrutiny when it comes to major sports events being held in any country – Russia is no exception to that. While one might say there are many challenges, I like to think there are many opportunities as well.

“The set of reforms approved in 2016 paved the way for much-needed changes to Fifa’s governance structure, such as a clear separation between political and management functions, term limits, disclosure of individual compensation, enhanced control of money flows and a strong commitment to human rights and the development of women’s football.

“When it comes to trust from our stakeholders, this rebuilding process may take time in some cases, but the important thing is that it was laid on a solid basis and has been developing steadily in the last couple of years. In the event of any wrongdoings, we have functional and independent judicial bodies that can take the appropriate measures.”

Fifa general secretary Fatma Samoura with the former Russian Football Union head Vitaly Mutko, now the subject of an Olympic ban

Financially speaking, the recent scandals have taken a clear toll on Fifa. Last year, the body reported a net loss of US$191.5 million, lower than the amount forecast by the governing body in its 2016 financial report, but Samoura notes that the federation is “in a good financial position and delivering on its promises” after a period of strong commercial interest leading up to Russia 2018.

“The event is of enormous importance for Fifa, and for Russia too,” she says. “The local organising committee, the host cities and the Russian government have been working very hard in the past seven years. We are extremely confident that the 2018 World Cup will run smoothly from an operational point of view and be a celebration of football for local and international fans, which is something that will also make our commercial partners happy.”

Last year’s Fifa Confederations Cup – which served as a dry run for four of Russia’s 12 World Cup host stadiums – delivered disappointing ticket sales, producing income of only US$22 million against expenses of US$142 million. Still, given that the men’s World Cup accounts for the biggest share of Fifa’s revenues by far and is of far greater significance than its eight-nation precursor, Samoura is confident that this summer’s tournament can be restorative for the federation.

“Restoring Fifa’s image has also been a priority for this administration,” she continues, “but a successful World Cup is just one part of what we are working on in order to achieve that: we’ve made reforms that have been implemented and we have a whole new set of governance and compliance standards.

“In the end, the World Cup is not only about how Fifa benefits from it, but about how the host country implements a solid legacy programme to have a positive impact in the years to come.”

Shifting focus

In the wake of its latest scandals, Fifa has been forced to rethink its approach to commercial partnerships. Having seen several key partners walk away after Brazil 2014 – the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Emirates, Castrol, Continental and Sony all declined to renew their most recent contracts – the federation has sought to procure sponsorship revenue from markets outside the traditional corporate hotbeds of North America, Europe, and economically developed Asian countries like Japan and South Korea.

Given that corporate interest, much like the World Cup itself, tends to move in cycles, this year’s host nation has, naturally, provided a handful of sponsors – Gazprom, a global partner of Fifa since 2013, is joined by four regional supporters in the shape of Alfa Bank, Rostelecom, Russian Railways and Alrosa, a Russian group of diamond mining companies. Yet it is one of Russia’s far eastern neighbours, a global superpower with grand designs of becoming a force in international soccer, that has come to the fore more than any other country in Fifa’s hour of need.

Restoring Fifa’s image has also been a priority for this administration, but a successful World Cup is just one part of what we are working on in order to achieve that.

One headline theme of commercial preparations for Russia 2018 has been China’s investment in Fifa properties, which, perhaps not coincidentally, has come amid widespread rumours of a potential bid from the country for the 2030 World Cup. Dalian Wanda Group, the conglomerate chaired by one of China’s wealthiest men, Wang Jianlin, was first to sign up, penning a 14-year agreement in early 2016. Swiftly following suit with their own World Cup sponsorships were Hisense, Vivo, Mengniu Group and Yadea, while Alibaba Cloud, the cloud computing arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba, has a deal to serve as the presenting partner for the Fifa Club World Cup until 2022.

All told, those companies will boost Fifa’s coffers by hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years, helping the federation’s leadership to put a positive spin on what at one point appeared a desperate situation.

“You can see the glass as half empty or half full,” says Samoura. “Fifa is not a European or North American organisation. We are a global organisation that aims to grow and develop the game worldwide with the target of increasing total participation in football from 45 per cent to 60 per cent of the world population.

“Widening our portfolio of commercial affiliates to other countries like Russia, the biggest country in the world, and China, the country with the highest population in the world, is definitely an important strategic step and we are extremely happy to have them on board.”

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s (right) commitment to investment in soccer has sparked a sponsorship rush from the country for Infantino’s Fifa

At a time when China’s president, Xi Jinping, has identified investment in sport – particularly soccer – as a central element of his economic growth plan, Chinese corporations have come to see Fifa’s flagship property as an ideal platform upon which to gain international recognition. But according to Phil Carling, the managing director of football at Octagon Worldwide, the international marketing agency with a strong pedigree in the business of World Cup sponsorship, their willingness to associate with soccer’s global governing body serves a political purpose at home, too.

“Something like the World Cup clearly fits the bill from two key perspectives,” he says. “One is that it builds credibility quite quickly to be associated with an event of that magnitude, and secondly it’s a lot of eyeballs; from an exposure perspective, it’s very powerful.

“That would be from a logical perspective and then the other component within China specifically is that President Xi has created this ‘One Road, One Belt’ policy and he’s placed sport, and football in particular, at the heart of the strategy that will be very much part of the country’s growth programme. It will embed football not only on a societal level but also at the educational levels as well.

“So for the oligarchs and the companies that are growing very quickly in China, sport and football in particular is a very powerful way to curry and build favour with the regime. Clearly, in a one-party state, that’s a very important factor to be able to do that.”

From a commercial standpoint, Carling believes the majority of Russia 2018 sponsors signed up too late to make a meaningful impact, a problem he says has been symptomatic of the recent turmoil at Fifa. Nevertheless, he adds, it could be that out of a bad situation comes positive change, not least since the commercial appeal of the World Cup, the world’s most-watched sporting event, lives on in spite of Fifa’s troubles.

“If I were Fifa, particularly the ‘new Fifa’, I would be focusing on creating a World Cup brand in its own right,” suggests Carling. “I think they’ve done that to a certain extent. I think it’s happened naturally and it’s also a factor when we come to talk about Russia because, again, there’s a lot of noise around it and it’s probably not the best political environment to be having a World Cup in Russia.

“But, frankly, that doesn’t matter. Once the tournament starts, it’s about the World Cup, the greatest show on earth, the beautiful game, the passion of more people on earth than any other sport. That massively overrides any issues that surround Fifa and its reputation, and I think that’s what you find.

“For most of the world – we’re talking about 190 markets – that really doesn’t matter. It’s the World Cup and will always be the World Cup.”