Questions remain for Fifa as Russia World Cup becomes centre of attention
Anyone daft enough to be looking at the Maracanã’s VVIP section – only Fifa could demand that extra V – rather than the pitch during the World Cup final would have seen Sepp Blatter deep in conversation with Vladimir Putin.
As the Fifa president turned away from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, with whom he had an uneasy relationship amid the troubled buildup to an ultimately successful tournament, the body language was pretty clear. But it was also a reminder that eyes will soon turn to Russia and, beyond that, to the controversial destination of Qatar in 2022. Perhaps.
Whether and when that tournament takes place will be largely decided over the next few months based on the results of Michael Garcia’s investigation into the 2018/22 bidding process and – as ever – whatever works best for Blatter. Collecting more than $4bn (£2.3bn) in revenues from this four-year cycle, which it argues is reinvested in football (but also in Fifa’s sizeable salaries and operational budget), the World Cup is Fifa’s cash cow.
It is worth remembering that the 78-year-old Blatter began the tournament besieged by criticism from all sides over a new wave of corruption allegations surrounding the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. Cutting a swathe through gridlocked São Paulo in his motorcade, he was angry with Uefa for saying that he should not stand for another term as president in 2015 having previously promised this would be his last.
He took out his frustration on the media, ranting against the “racism” of those he believed had an agenda against Fifa. But by the time he was shrugging of the boos of the Maracanã crowd, Blatter was again looking younger than his years.
Fifa’s communications division followed a specific plan to keep Blatter out of the limelight in Brazil, not easy for a man who is drawn to a photo opportunity like a moth to a flame. That meant keeping public utterances to a minimum and, where possible, avoiding appearing on camera in the stadiums in the knowledge that any fleeting glimpse would provoke a chorus of boos.
Blatter’s demeanour was that of a man both relieved the tournament had been a success and desperate to get away from a country that had become just one major headache among many over the past four years. Brazil’s rambunctious media and public, not to mention a political class unafraid to challenge Fifa even while infected with its own corruption issues, made the marriage an uneasy one.
Jérôme Valcke, the Fifa secretary general charged with the task of delivering first a World Cup in South Africa and then one in Brazil, must now turn east for the third World Cup in a row targeted at a developing economy. It might suit Blatter’s sense of destiny to conquer new lands, and it makes some commercial sense in terms of opening up new markets, but the logistics are challenging.
The endless cycle of new stadiums, new roads, new railways, new infrastructure might give the hosts a (much-disputed) Keynesian rationale for spending money on a World Cup. Not to mention the opportunity for more people to make a cut. But it also means more to potentially go wrong.
Dealings with Putin’s Russia are likely to be straightforward in comparison to Brazil – for obvious reasons there are unlikely to be mass street protests. All that will suit Fifa just fine, even if handing the World Cup to regimes where free speech and a free press are not exactly welcomed raises its own issues.
“I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup,” said Valcke in a revealing aside last year that says much about Fifa’s priorities. It is fair to surmise that Fifa won’t be losing too much sleep about how Russia’s anti-gay laws and robust stance on suppressing protest will fit with its “handshake for peace” and anti-discrimination rhetoric.
But while there will be less civil unrest, and fewer concerns that the 2018 hosts won’t build their stadiums on time, the bigger job might be selling the concept of a Russian World Cup to fans and sponsors.
Putin has already mandated a $20bn budget to build and renovate 10 stadiums that stretch from St Petersburg in the north to Sochi in the south and from Kaliningrad in the west to Ekaterinburg in the foothills of the Urals in the east.
There remain question marks over how Russia won the rights to the World Cup in the first place – though Vitaly Mutko, who led Russia’s bid, and his chief executive Alexei Sorokin believe they have nothing to fear from Garcia’s investigation – and the usual logistical, transport and security considerations.
Yet while there were legitimate questions about corruption, human rights and the $51bn price tag before the most expensive Winter Olympics in history in Sochi, there was a feeding frenzy around the coverage that left Russian organisers furious and hurt.
With free train travel between cities, a promise to open up the country without a visa to anyone with a ticket and a commitment to showcase the diversity of the country there is every chance that the Russian World Cup will succeed.
Yet racism and violence in its domestic league are a serious concern, as is the underperformance of their own side.
Mutko suggested that their problems in domestic football should be considered separately from the World Cup. “The World Cup is something different – we shouldn’t be confusing two things, mixing them up,” he said. “The World Cup at large is a treasure to the whole world, we will open up Russia to 1m fans who will come from all countries.”
The Russian sports minister and Fifa executive committee member admitted it would be hard to replicate Brazil’s “fantastic” atmosphere. But he said there was a genuine commitment to use the tournament to showcase another side of Russia – or at least the mostly European corner of the vast country where the tournament is being held.
“It will be very difficult to replicate this fantastic atmosphere. “We would like to try and recreate something like this in Russia,” said Mutko. “Of course we have infrastructural problems. But we are a safe country. All the cities are very interesting. We have a vast cultural heritage. And we recognise we will need to raise the benchmark in terms of general services.”As for Fifa, there are much more pressing concerns than Russia 2018. As Blatter plans his re-election campaign and the Uefa president, Michel Platini, tries to figure out a way to stop him, but remains unlikely to stand himself, everything is likely to be reflected through the prism of petty politicking.
Regardless of the problems piling up at the door of Fifa’s $100m headquarters in Zurich, Blatter is likely to be a shoo-in for re-election given the scale of his support outside Europe. As ever, the serious problems facing world football – racism, match fixing, third-party ownership of players imported into Europe in their thousands – will become mere pawns in a wider game. So too will the open question of whether and when the Qatar World Cup will take place. The 80-strong Qatar 2022 delegation in Brazil appeared paranoid and on edge but perhaps they are right to be, with Garcia’s verdict looming.
The Sunday Times allegations linking the Qatari former Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam to payments made to football officials massively increased the pressure on their status as World Cup hosts.
Qatar has also promised to act to improve the conditions of migrant workers building the infrastructure that underpins its World Cup plans, following a series of reports in the Guardian and criticism from human rights organisations.Like other issues facing Fifa pre-Brazil, Blatter shunted the question of when to announce the move to hosting the Qatar World Cup in winter by convening one of his much loved “task forces”. He will now have to start providing some answers. With work on the stadiums due to host the 2022 World Cup having begun, it is understood that organisers will resist any attempt to convene a re-vote through the courts.
Brazil offered a stark contrast between the often intoxicating fare on the pitch and in the host cities and the absurd Fifa protocol that preceded it.
At a reception in Manaus before the first match of England’s pitifully short campaign, FA chairman Greg Dyke offered a succinct appraisal of his first Fifa Congress. “It reminded me of certain things in Eastern Europe. The idolisation of the leader. I thought it was pathetic, personally. I couldn’t believe it,” he told the Guardian. “I think the cult of Blatter is pathetic. I don’t think it’s what it should be about.”
Until the man at the top changes, it is hard to see how Fifa’s culture will change. And without a wholesale culture change, it will be hard to tackle some of those fundamental problems facing the game.Meanwhile, the money-making World Cup bandwagon will roll on, leaving behind difficult questions over its legacy in Brazil and posing new ones for Fifa, Russia and, perhaps, Qatar.
(Source: The Guardian)