The world cup in Russia this summer could be a disaster. Football's showpiece event may not recoverby Jonathan Liew / May 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Stray dogs have roamed the streets of Russian cities for as long as anyone can remember. Following the fall of Communism in the 1990s, as prices rose and the economy collapsed, the animals began to proliferate: more people were throwing their pets out onto the street. Then, when the economy bounced back, capitalism began to generate plenty of waste for them to scavenge. Today, some estimates put the number of stray dogs in Russia as high as two million.
For a country about to throw its doors open to the multitudes attending this summer’s World Cup, this is presenting a big problem. Vitaly Mutko, the deputy prime minister, ordered host cities to install temporary dog shelters. But given the chronic scarcity of funds and the sheer scale of the problem, municipal authorities have a strong incentive to cut corners. With the tournament already rife with talk of corruption and fears of racism in the stands, this is where canine death squads come in.
According to animal rights campaigners, cities are issuing tenders for companies to remove dogs from the streets before the first batch of World Cup tourists arrive. The methods are many and varied, but the most popular involve poison or else shooting the dogs with tranquiliser darts and then taking them to a shelter, where they often end up being put down.
Like so many of the scare stories emerging from post-truth Russia, the tale of the World Cup strays is probably a blend of grim reality and macabre western wish fulfilment about this distinctive country. And yet it also fits into a wider ugly narrative about the supposed greatest stage of the beautiful game. The whole way we perceive the World Cup has become warped, bearing no resemblance to the way its creators imagined it.
When an idealistic French administrator called Jules Rimet first proposed a World Cup in the 1920s, he envisaged an event where barriers would come down, where nations would unite, where an entire planet could be captivated by a single sporting spectacle. A celebration of humanity; a celebration of football, in its purest and most refined form. It’s a fair bet that he wouldn’t have foreseen the catalogue of crooked deals and back-handers, nor the ongoing FBI corruption probes into football’s governing body, Fifa. Over the last several years, the combined effect of these has exposed to the world the squalid business that international football has become. Rimet probably wouldn’t have foreseen canine death squads with tranquiliser guns either.
How, then, did we get here? How did we reach the point where football—a game in which people attempt to kick a ball through a large metal frame—became a pretext for industrial-strength corruption, the grubbier aspects of geopolitics and now a canine massacre? How do you manage to turn a great sporting pageant into a carnival of misery? In short: how did the World Cup become so thoroughly unlovable?
It is important not to romanticise the past. The tournament has been used as a propaganda tool for brutal autocrats before—see Italy in 1934, or Argentina in 1978. It’s been held in countries with only a passing interest in football—as the United States still was in 1994. It’s been awarded in dubiously opaque circumstances—see Germany in 2006 or South Africa in 2010. And it’s taken place against a backdrop of ill-feeling, scepticism and chaos—see England in 1966, which despite its treasured place in the national sporting psyche, is better remembered beyond our shores for its shambolic organisation, ramshackle infrastructure and suspect refereeing.
Yet seldom, if ever, have all these factors collided so spectacularly, and at the same time. Horror stories are 10 a penny in the run-up to these kind of huge sporting events but this time, they are no longer ameliorated by good will. Even if there was some domestic opposition to the tournament itself in both South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014, those World Cups were buoyed by a genuine passion for the game in the host countries. And the wider world was, by and large, eager to see the tournament succeed.
None of this applies this time in the case of Russia. Vladimir Putin was never much of a football fan—he much prefers ice hockey, along with his compatriots. Surveys consistently show that Russians aren’t much interested in football: almost half of them don’t plan to watch the tournament at all. Since annexing Crimea in 2014, Russia’s unenviable record on human rights has been compounded by its status as international pariah too. And with other incidents, including the recent poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, Russia has made its own image even more toxic. Few foreigners think of it as an attractive place for a mini-break. All told, thanks to the combination of international unease and domestic indifference, ticket sales are down by half a million compared with Brazil four years ago. The competition is simply failing to strike imaginations, at home or abroad, in the way that its predecessors did.
What of the claimed economic advantages? Remarkably, the cash-strapped host nation—where most of the population takes home less than £400 a month—seems unenthused by the promised benefits: shiny new infrastructure, a crackdown on crime, and job creation. Barely a third of Russians believe that the World Cup will have any positive impact on the economy, and just 2 per cent think it will improve local infrastructure. Even in Russia, a country where the state’s power to shape and disseminate its own message is almost limitless, it seems that spending untold billions on a giant global spectacle no longer guarantees positive PR.
Eight years ago, when the country won the right to stage the World Cup, the idea of hosting the tournament was more popular with Russians, particularly since both England and the US were bidding (England for 2018, the US for 2022). The economy was rallying. The price of oil was sky-high. It was thought that, along with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the World Cup would mark Russia’s return to the global elite, culturally as well as politically. But in the years since, war, international ostracism, mistrust, and Olympic expulsion—in the wake of accusations of state-sponsored doping—have exposed those hopes as an illusion. This World Cup is creating a strange disjuncture between the beaming and unctuous Russia that pledged to throw the world a party in 2010, and the surlier, rather begrudging Russia that is contractually obliged to do so now.
Still, the organisers do not have to face the sort of significant public dissent seen in Brazil four years ago. Protests in Putin’s Russia are, of course, rare. But perhaps something else is going on here: not so much antipathy as apathy, the sort of despairing ennui that overcomes a population when they realise they are footing the bill for somebody else’s party.
In March, to mark the 100-day countdown to the start of the tournament, Fifa issued a video featuring a number of legendary names—Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Diego Maradona—doing kick-ups. At the end came the reveal: Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, in one of the Kremlin’s ornate function rooms, kicking the ball around with Putin himself. To be brutally frank, neither man looked entirely comfortable in control of a football. As they knocked it to and fro, clever editing was used to give the impression that the ball never touched the ground. This largely forgettable, heavily doctored skit—featuring the world’s greatest footballers playing second fiddle to the politicians—could prove an instructive foretaste of the tournament itself.
Infantino has been in his job for just over two years, after being elected with the brief of repairing the damage caused by his predecessor, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter. Over the two decades of Blatter’s presidency, Fifa had become a byword for corruption, dishonesty and greed, culminating in 2010, with the twin farces of Russia being awarded the 2018 and Qatar the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar is an impossibly unsuitable place to stage a football tournament and its bid was mired in scandal almost from the moment it triumphed. There were allegations—strenuously denied—that the desert emirate covertly tried to divert millions of dollars to Fifa officials in return for compromising the bidding process. Russia, for its part, managed to escape most of the scrutiny by destroying all its bid computers. But by the time the FBI concluded a three-year investigation into Fifa corruption in 2015, uncovering a culture of kick-backs and racketeering going back decades, nobody was inclined to split hairs. As the sands began to shift from under his feet, Blatter—disgraced and defiant to the last—took his leave.
For all the talk of new brooms and new eras, and all the doddering elders shuffled out of the door, many via the back of a police van, Fifa remains profoundly tarnished. The FBI’s corruption case is still in progress. Infantino may have been elected with a mandate to bring change, but from the outside at least, the new regime bears a striking resemblance to the old. Earlier this year it was reported that members of the ruling council—which meets just three times a year—were being paid a total of almost £7m in salaries and travel expenses. Last summer, eyebrows were raised when Infantino responded to an ethics committee investigation into his election spending by removing all but two members of—that’s right—the ethics committee.
For a public whose post-crash tolerance for white-collar intrigue was wearing thin when Russia won the bid, this summer’s tournament can feel like an ugly lovechild, the progeny of an unholy alliance between two of the world’s great rogue regimes. In the UK, in the diplomatic stand-off after the Salisbury poisoning, Boris Johnson called it the propaganda equivalent of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Even if that is overdoing it, there are real fears that it is another pawn on a geopolitical chessboard, a proxy war in shorts.
At which point, it feels natural to wonder: what’s the upside here? If it isn’t going to benefit ordinary Russians, and it isn’t going to lock Russia and the rest of the world in a tender embrace, and if it’s going to line the pockets of Fifa again, and if black players are going to be subjected to monkey noises from the stands, and if dogs are going to be culled, then what calibre of sporting spectacle could make that worth it?
Ah, the football. Perhaps it always comes down to the football in the end. South Africa in 2010 provided a showcase for one of the all-time great international teams, in the shape of a remarkable Spain. Brazil in 2014 gave us one of the all-time great tournaments, with a thrilling group stage, heavyweight match-ups in the latter stages and some of the most stunning international upsets ever seen (Spain 1-5 Holland; Brazil 1-7 Germany).
The hope, then, has to be that the sport itself will once again ride to the rescue. But as we begin the final preparations, the fear is that Russia 2018 lacks any of the ingredients for a winning competition. It’s possible to argue that international football currently contains no single great team. The five favourites—Spain, Brazil, Germany, France and Argentina—are each flawed in their own way. The hosts have been plonked into one of the weakest groups in World Cup history (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay) and yet may struggle to make the quarter-finals. Meanwhile, the competition’s lower reaches are stuffed with flimsy makeweights while the likes of Italy and Holland are staying home, having failed to qualify.
And here international football runs into its most endemic problem: a lack of practice time, and thus a deficit of cohesion, organisation and tactical sophistication. By common consent, even the best international teams would struggle against today’s top European clubs, who as a result of the unprecedented wealth flowing into competitions like the Champions League, the Premier League and La Liga have managed to grab the best coaches, most of the best sports scientists, the media attention and the revenue, and virtually all of the good players between them. Throw in the fact that unlike international sides, club teams can be drilled and honed and trained every day of the week, rather than for a few days every couple of months, and there is no mystery about why the top clubs overshadow the international game.
Four decades ago—perhaps even a decade ago—you could turn on the World Cup and convince yourself you were watching the pinnacle of the sport. No-one can pretend that is true these days, even if the clash of cultures and styles, of histories and identities, of passion and patriotism, still create—or ought to create—the potential for a truly special event. These days, the redeeming virtue of the World Cup can no longer be that it serves up the greatest football, but it should be able to offer some of the greatest drama and perhaps the very greatest moments. This, perhaps, is the most realistic remaining hope for Russia 2018: a tournament that passes off without major incident, which becomes seared into the memory. Yet even this best-case scenario has a sombre ending. For after the television trucks and the fans finally roll out of Russia, the circus moves on to Qatar in 2022, the most controversial World Cup of modern times.
If the corruption allegations surrounding the Qatari bid weren’t dispiriting enough, then the myriad tales of workers toiling—and sometimes dying—in intolerable heat and sleeping in squalor, of stadiums being erected in cities that haven’t been built yet, of the country’s deeply repressive laws on homosexuality and dissent, should do the trick. It means four more years of graft and politicking, numbing tales of exploitation, asinine press releases and dispiriting doublethink, more spin and less fun. And if Infantino gets his way over the objections of the top European leagues, it also means an expanded format—48 teams, 16 more than at present—that will dilute quality, generate more mismatches and swell an already bloated tournament with a volume of mediocrity that could push it to the verge of irrelevance.
Even the most smoothly-run World Cup won’t lay a glove on international football’s gravest and deepest-seated problems: the incompetence of Fifa, the tyranny of the club game, the ever-present fear of doping and fixing. And so it’s time to start looking at the worst-case scenario where Russia 2018 does not only fail to arrest international football’s long-term decline, but through some combination of political chicanery, major mishap and stultifying football, actually manages to accelerate it.
Could the unthinkable happen? Could people start turning off the World Cup? Unlikely, in the short term. The World Cup final remains the single biggest television event on the planet, and audiences for Russia are expected to remain buoyant despite the absence of the United States team, and the American viewing public. But look deep within the structure, and the tiniest cracks are beginning to form.
A struggle to secure top-tier sponsors reflects not merely Fifa’s ailing reputation, but the difficulty of selling Russia and Qatar as aspirational footballing idylls. The march of the club game will continue apace, and as the wider project of globalisation falters there are plenty of reasons to see more trouble ahead for a competition that tries to be Planet Football.
Of course, international sport has endured periods of rising tension before. The Olympic Games was in a similar sort of place in the early 1980s: riven by boycott and conflict, deeply unsure of its role in a rapidly-shifting world. And while there are too many people with a stake in the World Cup for it to collapse, it’s at least possible that it will instead gently blanch, wither, dissolve ever so slightly into the background noise. But even if the tournament does live to fight another day, its uglier aspects will also persist. As with smartphones and sausages, in order to fully enjoy the World Cup it will remain best to avoid enquiring how it was made.
On 13th June in Moscow, Fifa will announce the hosts of the 2026 World Cup. For most of the last two years the smart money has been on a joint bid from the US, Canada and Mexico, but in recent months a significant challenge has emerged from Morocco, which has been mounting a charm offensive in an attempt to earn votes and global goodwill. In April, a delegation from Fifa visited the country to make a final, vital assessment of facilities and infrastructure. It was widely reported that in the days before Fifa’s visit, in an attempt to make the best possible impression on the inspectors, stray dogs were being rounded up and shot, their bloody bodies piling up at the side of the street.