Russia, corruption and the dark side of the Beautiful Game

Jeremy Kinsman reflects on politics, money, and lies. And where sport sits in the middle of it all.
By: /
June 22, 2015

Watching the talented, spirited athletes at the FIFA Women’s World Cup is balm for one’s spirit in a troubled time. They are true exemplars of The Beautiful Game. But off the field, behind the glamour and FIFA’s front-office bravado, there is the stench of corruption.

Corruption is the way of so much of the world. Grease a palm, skim a cut off the top, sell an inside tip, peddle influence… These are reflexes like breathing in most places. Nothing much gets done there without them. From a dictator’s family selling mining concessions down to the traffic cop squeezing a motorist, the privilege of office is a license to extract gain.

But corrective progress creeps along. As rule-of-law governance evolves, corruption stands out as pernicious and ultimately dysfunctional. Advanced democracies and even some non-democratic advanced economies set clear rules and prosecute offenders, albeit selectively, nailing inside traders and defending the integrity of public contracts against politicians on the take. True, big winners who twist the rules and shelter gains in pliant offshore banks still adorn the society pages as they endow hospitals and parade as celebrities at museum galas. And no one can pretend with a straight face that the role of money in U.S. politics in defence of special interests is anything other than institutionalized sanctioned corruption.

No wonder that cynicism reigns in much of the world. But every country has its tipping point when enough becomes enough. Mohamed Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor who set himself aflame when he was abused by a petty official. In Tunisia, the dictator’s family controlled 50 percent of the economy. The Tunisian revolt sparked the wider Arab Spring of protest. It tragically failed in most places to dislodge corrupt monarchies and dictatorships unafraid to stomp with force on nonviolent protest. But the experience did begin to mold new norms to replace old ways.

They are true exemplars of The Beautiful Game. But off the field, behind the glamour and FIFA’s front-office bravado, there is the stench of corruption.

The expectations of those who want more agency over their own lives are not really foremost about democracy, though most people in most places would welcome the democratic experience if they trusted it to deliver safety, security and prosperity. They generally don’t. But they do want fairness.

Alexei Navalny, the late Boris Nemtsov, and other reformist Russians brought vast crowds onto the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest a fixed parliamentary election, and a dictated return to power of Vladimir Putin that meant the prolongation in power of what Navalny termed “the party of crooks and thieves.” Their grievance has been emphatically about fairness.

Putin suffocated the protests for now by playing to a majority of Russians still traumatized by an excess of change and tumult in their lives who prefer to pretend belief in Putin’s “managed democracy” that distributed at least some benefits from Russia’s mineral-resource boom, while buying into his national identity myth that helps them get over the loss of empire and national status. The crisis with Ukraine and the emotional “return” of Crimea to Russia’s breast added a boost of patriotic self-esteem.

Russia’s resurgent nationalist populism is mirrored in many countries. Thankfully, it is more often channeled through sports than in territorial ambition, and in no sport more prominently than football.

The contests and narratives of professional sports form today a mass escapist entertainment that has become truly the opium of the people. People who find it futile to resist economic gain being fixed won’t tolerate a game being thrown against their team and country.

But off-the-field fixes of big-money deals over World Cup venues and broadcast rights are another story. The U.S. Attorney General has issued indictments against FIFA officers for taking bribes to select South Africa as the 2010 FIFA World Cup host. Swiss officials have opened an investigation concerning the bidding process for the 2018 Russia World Cup and the 2022 World Cup slated for Qatar.

Earlier this month, members of the European Parliament were already baying for FIFA’s withdrawal of the hosting rights from Russia and Qatar.

Qatar was a virtually incomprehensible choice for 2022: holding two weeks of high-intensity all-important football games in 40-plus temperatures, in a country with a sparse football pedigree to begin with, seemed nuts. How did this bid win? Surely, people argue, something tipped the deal.

But Russia? The Russian bid won the balloting in FIFA’s 22-member Executive Committee in a second round against Portugal/Spain and Belgium /Netherlands (England lost in the first round). It will have been 12 years since the last European football-playing country hosted the Cup (Germany in 2006). Russia pulled off the Sochi Winter Olympic Games pretty successfully in 2014.

The Swiss authorities will deliver a verdict on the balloting process. If there is evidence of money changing hands over the Russian bid, would FIFA, in a spirit of death-bed repentance, really yank the Cup from Russia, despite the fact that the new stadium venues and infrastructure are now nearing completion in the several Russian cities involved?

This would drive Putin nuts, way beyond the expansion eastward of NATO, or anything else he accuses the West of having done to humiliate Russia. He couldn’t bring himself to accept that the overthrow of Victor Yanukovych in Ukraine was because reformers there had reached a tipping point over the corruption that had ruled their country since independence in 1991. How could he have accepted it, when protesters in Moscow had been making exactly that point about Russia? The protest’s contagion to Russia represented his greatest fear. It is no secret in Russia that corruption, cronyism, and institutionalized unfairness are embedded in the regime. Contagion could put Russia over its own tipping point. He had to claim the Kiev uprising was instead a manipulation against a Russia-friendly President by the CIA. (In one of the blunders that Americans seem gifted in, CIA Director John Brennan then showed up in a poorly disguised secret visit to Kiev.)

Russians generally believe Putin about the uprising in Kiev and there is no question they would believe him if he said that the move to take the World Cup from Moscow was another U.S./Western attempt to humiliate them and weaken their country. This really would confirm a new Cold War, and the end to any chance of getting Russian cooperation on Syria, Iran, or even the Arctic. Is that what we want?

On the other hand, if the evidence of a bribe passed without some sort of admonishment, it would be a blow to more than the credibility of world football’s governance.

We have seen parts of this movie before. The award of the 2002 Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City was revealed to have been influenced by side-deals to curry favour from voting members of the International Olympic Committee — children admitted to local universities and tuition paid; extensive local medical care for delegates, etc., — not on the level of the alleged $10 million transfer from South Africa to FIFA delegates from Latin America for the 2002 World Cup, but clearly bribery.

The IOC fired IOC members affected. The Salt Lake City Organizing Committee leadership resigned. They were later tried for bribery and acquitted of personal responsibility under U.S. law.

But the U.S. kept the Games. Remember that if it comes to judging Russia.

Let’s hope for serious action against FIFA officials if new bribes from Russia and/or Qatar can be proven; several are already indicted for past offenses.

Let’s hope in the event of such evidence against Russian World Cup organizers that Swiss authorities will be given a serious audience by President Putin and that he will take some sort of punitive action in response.

Unlikely? Putin can be surprising. Guaranteed, he won’t give the West any credit for getting to the sordid truth. It will still be presented as an attempt to embarrass Russia. But he could find it convenient for political purposes at home and image abroad to rise above it, after a few ritualistic whacks to local culprits. Expect some personal disclaimers recalling Capitaine Renault when he ordered the closing of Rick’s bar in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

And maybe, maybe, in cleaning up the Beautiful Game’s back room, it will accelerate improvement of our human world’s act on corruption overall.

Or is that too much to expect?