Authoritarian regimes love grand international sporting events. There’s something about the mass regimentation, the set-piece spectacle, the old-fashioned idea of nation states competing for glory that appeals to leaders who wish to show off the greatness of their country to the world. Berlin ’36, Moscow ’80, Sochi ’14 — nothing says ‘we’re here, get used to it’ better than a giant sporting jamboree.
The 2018 football World Cup doesn’t offer quite the same degree of validation as an Olympic Games. But for Vladimir Putin, it’s still a major opportunity to demonstrate not only Russia’s new-found greatness but also its continued membership of the civilised world. For what Putin yearns for, above all, is respect, a place at the table of great nations, and recognition from the world that Russia is no longer a poor, dysfunctional collapsed empire but once again a superpower.
You might think that if gaining respect is Putin’s aim, he has been looking for it in all the wrong places. Invading neighbouring countries, cheating at sports and undermining western democracies are hardly classic reputation-enhancers. But respect and respectability are different things. In the convoluted moral logic of Putin-world, breaking the rules is what every great nation does — from the US invasion of Iraq to Washington’s supposed encouragement of democratic revolutions all over the former Soviet Union. And if the US can bend international law and remain respectable, Russia should be able to as well. The question is how to get away with it.
The World Cup, politically, is the Kremlin’s big chance for attempting to re-set the world’s bad opinion of Russia. The Kremlin’s sincere hope is that the world will, some day soon, forget about all its recent crimes and get on with business as usual. Sergei Lavrov, during his meeting last month with Boris Johnson in Moscow, kept relentlessly pressing the point that it was time to ‘move on’, ‘concentrate on the positives’, ‘rebuild our relationship’ and various other diplomatic euphemisms for ‘please let us off the hook’.
Putin has been very lucky with the World Cup. The fact that Russia is hosting the tournament at all is an accident of long-term scheduling. Russia was awarded the hosting rights in December 2010, back when the relatively liberal Dmitry Medvedev was president and there was every hope that the Putin era was over. Between 2000 and 2008 Putin exiled and jailed over-mighty oligarchs and took over their TV stations; his troops made the separatist Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia Russian protectorates, laws were passed banning ‘gay propaganda’. Russia was borderline wicked — but in the eyes of the world and of Fifa, not wicked enough to disqualify it from hosting such a prestigious event. By today’s standards, 2010 was an innocent time — and even Russian liberals admitted that compared to Stalinist days, they were living under a ‘vegetarian’ regime rather than a carnivorous one.
What a difference seven years makes. Since his return to power in 2012, Putin annexed Crimea, backed an ongoing separatist rebellion in Eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 10,000 people, hatched a plot to conceal mass doping by Russian Olympic athletes, ratcheted up a propaganda and disinformation campaign intended to weaken and break apart western democracies, supported separatist movements across Europe from Catalonia to Scotland and backed right-wing parties from Hungary to Germany — before intervening to turn the tide of the Syrian civil war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad. If the selection for the World Cup were held today, there’s little doubt Russia would be out of the running.
In the wake of the annexation of Crimea and the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane by a Russian Buk missile launcher in 2014, there were calls to reassign the Cup. Fifa rejected them. The then Fifa president Sepp Blatter said that ‘boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation’ doesn’t work — and he was backed, naturally, by Russian sports minister and Fifa executive committee member Vitaly Mutko, who called the World Cup ‘a force for good’.
Fifa, of course, is in many ways a kindred spirit to the Kremlin. Fifa was shown to be corrupt by a high-profile investigation by the US FBI in 2015 that resulted in the indictment of seven Fifa officials on suspicion of receiving $150 million in bribes. When news of the misdeeds was made public, Fifa, like the Kremlin, blamed the press rather than the alleged culprits. In the wake of a 2010 Sunday Times and Panorama investigation into alleged payments to Fifa board members just before the selection of Russia as host of the 2018 World Cup, Blatter warned of the ‘evils of the media’ in a speech to the Fifa executive committee. As Blatter made clear, Fifa doesn’t do boycotts for the sake of moral principles.
Putin has also been lucky that football is one of the very few remaining sports where Russian athletes haven’t been seriously tainted by evidence of systematic doping, and are therefore still allowed to compete internationally. Two independent investigations by the International Olympics Committee uncovered overwhelming evidence that the Russian secret services organised a sophisticated system to cover up mass doping of Russian athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Among other shenanigans uncovered by the IOC, urine samples from Russian athletes were passed through a small hatchway in the testing lab into a secret room and untainted samples passed back in their place. The IOC established that more than 1,000 Russian athletes had used illegal performance-enhancing drugs, and stripped 51 of them of their Olympic medals. Russia itself was also denied the right to participate in next month’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics — though individual Russian athletes can participate under a neutral flag. And Vitaly Mutko — now deputy prime minister and president of the Russian Football Union — has been banned for life from future Olympic Games for his role in the doping conspiracy.
Fifa seems to play by different rules. In November 2016, it fired Professor Jiri Dvorak, a distinguished doctor and neurologist who had worked on Fifa’s medical, anti-doping and injury prevention programmes for 22 years after he began investigating doping in Russian football. According to the Guardian, Dvorak had contacted Professor Richard McLaren, author of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s report into drugs at Sochi, to follow up on evidence that 11 Russian footballers were among the athletes who benefited from state-sponsored doping during the 2012 London Olympics. Fifa insisted that the paper’s ‘speculations around the departure of Prof Dvorak are completely baseless’.
To the Russians, the doping scandal, the Ukraine invasion and the US election hacking scandal should be seen as so much water under the bridge. To quote Sergei Lavrov, it’s time to ‘put the past behind us’ and get on with enjoying the World Cup. Putin will surely make certain that it’s a spectacle worthy of a great nation.
Owen Matthews and Roger Alton look ahead to the summer's tournament.