Anyone who says that sport and politics don’t mix is a halfwit. You see, you couldn’t make it up, the story behind and leading to this World Cup in Russia. There is an embarrassment of weird coincidences and connections to prove that truth is way stranger than fiction. What is weirdest of all is the entanglement of this World Cup with ongoing events that dominate daily political coverage and discussion.
This is a rogue World Cup. It was from the moment Russia won the bid to hold it and it has continued be just that – outlandish. The chicanery and the cast of characters in the story almost preclude the possibility of rational thinking. You already know many of the characters from daily television news.
There’s a Donald Trump connection. Of course there is. As the whole world knows, even people who care nothing for soccer – especially them – one of the first clues to a possible direct connection between the Trump campaign in 2016 and certain parties in Russia, was the notorious Steele Dossier. You know about the Dossier. Of course you do: Collusion, bribes, the long-term cultivation of Trump by Putin allies and, yes, the pee tape. Lurid allegations galore.
Well, here’s the thing – its author, Christopher Steele, a British intelligence officer from 1987 to 2009, and co-founder of a private-intelligence company, was up and running in the private sector when he got his first big client in 2010. That was the Football Association (FA), England’s domestic soccer governing body. The FA had organized a bid to have England hold the 2018 World Cup. It was a serious bid, backed by the British government, and one that made sense. Prince William and David Beckham had traipsed the world leading a team of officials, and getting members of the FIFA executive committee on-board to vote in favour of the England bid.
It failed, embarrassingly getting only two votes. Russia won the bid to play host to the World Cup. Stunned and suspicious, the FA hired Steele, a Russia expert, to look into it. He found corruption and shenanigans that went beyond anyone’s most dramatic fantasies about how FIFA operated. Bribes, cash-in-envelope payments and schemes to avoid paying taxes. Steele reported back to the FA. But what he’d discovered was huge and there was this one FIFA honcho, Chuck Blazer, who was living large in not one, but two apartments in Trump Towers in New York City. (One was for his cats. Seriously.) Yep, Trump Towers is part of this story. If the walls could talk. Anyway, Steele gave his information to the FBI. Blazer became an FBI informant. In 2015, the U.S. Justice Department – the one Trump rails against weekly – indicted 14 people in connection with US$150-million in bribes and kickbacks.
The downfall of FIFA, as it then operated, was under way. “The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed … undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.” Who said that? Why it was James Comey, former director of the FBI. The man eventually fired by President Trump. Comey was proud of the FBI’s work in dismantling the corruption at FIFA, the most powerful sports body in the world. And why did Trump fire Comey? In the course of multiple explanations and blather, Trump told Lester Holt in an NBC News interview: “When I decided [to fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, ’You know, this Russia thing …’ ”
Yep, everything returns to “this Russia thing,” the thing that started when Russia won the bid to hold this World Cup and a Russia expert named Steele was hired to look into that.
Stand back from it and you can see that this World Cup is shaping up to be just as strange as its backstory and the bizarre interconnectedness of continuing Trump coverage, Russia, spies, bribes and furtive double-dealing.
A World Cup without Italy, the Netherlands, the United States, Cameroon and Chile is a rogue World Cup. A World Cup that opens with a match between the two lowest-ranked teams at the tournament, one the host country, is a rogue World Cup. Russia, ranked 70th in the world, plays Saudi Arabia, ranked 67th. Russia hasn’t won a game since November of 2017. A World Cup with video assistant referees (VAR), allowing video footage to assist refereeing decisions, is an aberration of a tournament. Where VAR has been used to date, it has sometimes caused chaos and woefully poor decisions.
Given the outlier aspect to it all, here are some wildly speculative but not unreasonable predictions. In the second round, the knock-out Round of 16, Argentina will be eliminated by France; Portugal will be defeated by Uruguay and England will be eliminated by Colombia. Yep, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will be going home early. The final four teams will be Germany, France, Brazil and Spain. By the way, Iceland, supported by many neutrals, will try but will melt fast in a group that includes Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria.
Think of it as a totally rogue World Cup and it all makes sense. Let the bandwagon-hopping begin, at Trump Towers and beyond.