Is President Vladimir Putin considering the option that, due to its aggressive politics, Russia may lose rights to host football World Cup?
I don’t think Mr Putin is overly worried about that. He’s busy with Ukraine, not with thinking about the World Cup in 2018.
But he is worried about whether football teams from Crimea may officially participate in Russian championship. For that, he needs green light by UEFA. Mr Putin is trying to use an international sports association [UEFA] to legitimize his politics. This is the only football-related political issue on the agenda in Russia.
Even so, documents from the Russian Football Union have leaked into media revealing that the employees over there are more worried than Mr Putin that FIFA might take the decision you mentioned.
How important, for Russia, is organising grand sports events?
Organising these – like the Universiade in Kazan, track and field World Championships in Moscow, Formula 1 stages at Sochi – are of interest to Russia for two main reasons. One is that money can be legally gotten from state coffers. The Sochi Olympics was a very corrupt project and its budget was colossal, but the football World Cup will, in addition to Moscow, happen in ten other cities. Thus, ten regional elites are ready for large money raining down from heaven, and therefore they are lobbying for better arenas to be built, to have ceremonies ever so grand.
The other issue is political: the central government desires to position Russia as a totally normal state which is able to organise top level international events. Russia is trying hard to raise its international profile – this is the issue of soft power, to show themselves attractive for tourists etc. Mr Putin has even issued a decree that for the World Cup fans may travel to Russia visa-free – tickets will do for a visa.
What would it change in Russia’s behaviour if it were to be deprived of football World Cup?
I think it will have an impact, but the impact will depend on what the official reason [to strip them of World Cup] will be. If the issue will be corruption, that would be pretty painful for Russia. The result would be that Russia will feel cornered, which only serves to enhance the trend of thought that Russia is being rejected, that Russia is intentionally not respected, and the whole world is unfriendly towards Russia. That may trigger a more nationalistic mood.
Frankly, I do not believe that FIFA would alter its decision to grant Russia the World Cup. Indeed, [the FIFA head] Sepp Blatter has asked the Swiss authorities to check how the World Cup rights went to Russia and Qatar. But the entire FIFA history is littered with corruption accusations. On how corrupt FIFA is, a pile of books has been written. I do not believe FIFA will alter its decision, or else they should thoroughly review the operations of FIFA as a whole. This is a most authoritarian association. Mr Blatter sits on his seat like [the Belorussian President Alexander] Lukashenka.
As a political reaction [to World Cup hosted in Russia] it may happen the way it was with Ukraine in the eve of the 2012 UEFA European Championship: political leaders of nations will not attend the Russian World Cup as they avoided Ukraine due to [the jailed former prime minister] Yulia Tymoshenko. Thereby, several European leaders tried to apply pressure on the behaviour of [president Viktor] Yanukovych’ government – to no avail. A glance at boycott campaigns in sports will reveal these have changed nothing.
How would Russia react if it were stripped of the World Cup hosting rights?
Probably, Russia will be spreading conspiracy theories about this being an example of long-term unfriendliness towards Russia. But in the end they will be reconciled with the decision and try to forget it.
May Russia retaliate for that, somehow?
FIFA is not a state – how does one retaliate?
Like Russian team not participating in the World Cup transferred to some other place.
Football is big business. I do not believe that Russia, where gig money is moving in football, would opt to undermine its football business with some boycott. Russia is employing excellent coaches and they have footballers from Brazil, Portugal and Spain playing there for very high salaries.
How would the ordinary Russians relate to Russia being stripped of World Cup?
The attitudes towards hosting the World Cup greatly vary in Russia. Some are happy to have such a grand even take place in their homeland, that their deeply peripheral towns will all of a sudden feature Brazilians – this is like a miracle, and for the Russian soul a miracle means an awful lot. On the other hand, they know that hosting the World Cup costs much money and may lead to vast rearrangements and reconstructions [in one’s home town]. Not all are happy over that, far from all. But whether those who are not happy will accuse their government or FIFA, I cannot tell.
It has been claimed that the very World Cup hosting right helps keep Russia reined in, as it would guarantee that Russia will not launch major military activities. What do you say about that?
This is an explanation too rational. Russia is not subject to such logic. For instance: even before the Sochi Olympics were over, Russia initiated its operations regarding Ukraine leading to annexation of Crimea and supporting the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Even though the entire Sochi narrative was creating a good impression of Russia: you invest in the Olympics and try to prove to the world that there is no need to fear Russia, as Russia is a normal state which will not behave bad.
I think if Mr Putin were to be asked point-blank if football World Cup has some effect to apply brakes on him, he’d say no. If Russia is engaged in a grand project and it is serious about restoring certain territories of the Soviet Union, then FIFA’s role here [applying brakes] is tiny indeed.
Which would be more prudent: never ever granting Russia any sports hosting rights until it starts to act civilised, or to still keep sports and politics separate, considering that Russia does have much money and a willingness to host grand sports events?
I do not believe that Russia would be interested in the coming decade or two to host some other grand sports event. For the Russian budget, Sochi was a heavy blow, with Crimea now on top of that as well as the football World Cup. The Russian rouble is highly unstable, [oil] prices are falling. Russia’s resources are diminishing.
Regarding the dilemma you posed: I’d say competition for event hosting rights must be made more transparent. [Picking organisers] ought not to be based on political reasons; meanwhile let’s not forget that all large sports organisations have their core values. For FIFA, it is not just promoting football, but things like fighting intolerance, for instance. High time FIFA started to keep these principles in mind also when selecting host countries. If a candidate does not fit the core values, they should be out. It’s the same how not all countries are fit for EU or NATO – there’s a filter there. If one wants to join these, one must first do one’s homework. Maybe FIFA should adopt something of that? But I do not believe FIFA is too interested in applying its declared principles.
It’s the money. Related to FIFA, there’s the football gear, construction works, advertisement – the market needs expansion. That’s why they must grant rights to countries of questionable background like Russia and Qatar. That’s why LAV got the World Cup – out of the need to expand the football viewer/consumer market to the African continent. Wanting to win new markets, one isn’t interested in values. One just goes to the market. Russia is a market.
Even so, one needs to strike a balance between market interests and promoting one’s core values.