12 August 2017

Why does Russia still get to host the World Cup?


Tomorrow is the final day of the World Athletics Championships. Or, more accurately, the Most-of-the-World Athletics Championships. The Russian team, you see, are not there – having been suspended (with the exception of a few “authorised neutral athletes”) on account of a state-sponsored programme of drug-cheating on an industrial scale. Across virtually every sport, at both the 2012 and 2014 Olympics, Russia’s representatives cheated and doped their way to gold, silver and bronze.

It is hardly Russia’s greatest crime, of course. But it does raise a timely question. Next year, the world’s best footballers will travel to Russia for the World Cup. The question is: why?

We all know how tiny Qatar bribed its way to hosting the 2022 competition – how it pretended that football could be played in scorching desert heat, and the greedy delegates at FIFA pretended to believe it. Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake’s devastating book about the scandal, ‘The Ugly Game’, grows positively repetitious as it lists the dozens of bribes and backhanders that were handed out in the process.

But little attention has been paid to Qatar’s partner-in-crime. That’s partly because the Russians were cannier than the Qataris during the bidding process (which covered both 2018 and 2022 simultaneously). When those investigating the scandal arrived in Moscow, they found the files destroyed: the computers had been leased for the duration of Russia’s bid campaign, then wiped.

In the week that Venezuela imploded and the Korean situation exploded, this may not seem like the most pressing foreign policy question. But in fact, it speaks as loudly as either about the state of the world – and the cowardice of the West.

Back in 1980, the United States and many other Western countries boycotted the Moscow Olympics, in protest at Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. (Britain left it up to individual athletes and associations.)

Today, Russia has invaded another sovereign nation – indeed, has not only annexed a large chunk of its territory but is fomenting violent insurrection in a further swathe. That’s without talking about the interference in America’s elections, the earlier invasion of Georgia, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the support of Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, and so very much more.

FIFA being FIFA, the World Cup will not be taken from Russia and given to a country that hasn’t, y’know, invaded one of the other potential competitors. But what about a boycott? It seems like the obvious course of action – so obvious that I was expecting many others to have set their stall out already.

It turns out, however, that about the most prominent figure to have done so is… Nick Clegg. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee did hold an inquiry, but its weaselly recommendation was that Britain should (assuming some of its teams qualify) use the occasion to “enhance and repair the wider relationship between the UK and Russia”.

In his keynote speech at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security – which we republished recently on CapX – Henry Kissinger argued that we in the West have to make a decision as to whether to confront or cooperate with Russia. But, he said, we need to do so from a position of strength.

At the moment, we too often seem to be choosing not cooperation or confrontation, but cowardice. Even as Vladimir Putin treats international laws, and international norms, as so much toilet paper, we hold out hope that somehow, relations can be restored – that Europe will get to keep its badly needed energy supplies, and Britain will get to keep all the lovely money that flows into the City.

The result is a situation that seems almost surreal. Putin rigs the Olympics – but gets to host the World Cup, and indeed to plaster the Champions League with adverts for his state-controlled energy monopoly, Gazprom. Russia is subject to sanctions – but is simultaneously touted as “one of the most promising markets for UK exporters”. Putin is a pariah – but still a statesman.

Next year’s tournament will be a chance for Russia to show itself off to the world. Inside the new stadiums, built at vastly inflated prices, its racist, thuggish, homophobic football fans will have an excellent view – not least of their strongman president, basking in the world’s attention. Wouldn’t it be so much better if we just left them to it?

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Subscribe here.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX