Skip to main content

Unable to markedly affect Russia where it counts – on the ground in Eastern Europe – U.S. President Barack Obama has begun goading her about soccer.

During remarks at this week's Group of Seven summit in Germany, he linked the idea of Russian misanthropy and Washington's sudden, come-to-Jesus belief in the geopolitical importance of the world's game.

First, Obama took out his verbal stick: "Does [Russian President Vladimir Putin] continue to wreck his country's economy and continue Russia's isolation in pursuit of a wrong-headed desire to recreate the glories of the Soviet Empire?"

Story continues below advertisement

Do you really need to read the second part? More to the point, do you think any of the grey suits in Moscow heard it?

Within those same remarks, Obama swivelled to give FIFA an instructive smack: "The United States, by the way, since we keep on getting better and better at each World Cup, we want to make sure that a sport that's gaining popularity is conducted in an upright manner."

There's an insult buried in there if you want to go digging for it. The United States made the knockout rounds at Brazil 2014. Russia didn't win a game.

I guarantee you the Russians went digging for it. I'm pretty sure they've got that line printed out and pinned to a dartboard.

If Russia and the U.S. are in the midst of starting another Cold War, soccer, rather than Ukraine, is currently its forward salient. As soon as the FBI made its move on FIFA, Russia was the first to begin shrieking about judicial colonialism.

This isn't the financial annoyance of sanctions and embargoes any more. Now they're creeping up behind something Putin actually cares about – the 2018 World Cup.

One of the key themes of Putin's reign has been demonstrating power through sport. He pumped huge gobs of cash into his personal obsession, judo, ensuring Russia is a powerhouse.

Story continues below advertisement

He encouraged his superrich cronies to buy high-profile sports properties around the world. The same men were expected to underwrite a massive investment in native athletics, including the creation of the Kontinental Hockey League. He went out and got the Sochi Games – a propaganda event designed largely for internal messaging. There was no effort made to invite the rest of the world to the party.

You can still picture Putin perched up in the rafters of the Bolshoy Arena during Olympic hockey, tilted forward like a gargoyle, surveying what he had wrought. He didn't look happy. It was all going poorly.

Putin doesn't seem to like sport, as such. He likes winners. Judging from his approach, he doesn't draw much distinction between the ice rink and the battlefield. He may prefer the former, since it's televised.

The culmination of 15 years of executive striving is the next World Cup. As the Russian economy shrinks, the costs spiral. Even after an eye-watering bill in Sochi, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev says Russia will spend $25-billion (U.S.) preparing for the tournament. That's nearly double the cost in Brazil and the real number is likely far greater.

Here's the real question – how much, if anything, did Russia pay to get the event in the first place? A fair amount of circumstantial evidence already suggests it was significant.

Domenico Scala, the head of FIFA's audit committee, opened the can of worms and then lit it on fire this week, when he suggested Russia and 2022 host Qatar might yet be stripped of their World Cups.

Story continues below advertisement

"Should there be evidence that the awards to Qatar and Russia came only because of bought votes, then the awards could be cancelled," he was quoted as saying in a Swiss newspaper.

That's the sort of "could" that starts international crises.

FIFA has no statute that deals specifically with this situation. It does have an extraordinary power vested in its executive committee (which is still led by Sepp Blatter) for "unforeseen circumstances and force majeure." Essentially, the executive committee can do anything it likes by fiat, including going back on its own word.

Obviously, it's a little more complicated than that. Given the billions that have already been spent, the resultant lawsuits might be the most byzantine in legal history.

This decision cannot be undertaken until the next FIFA congress – an emergency session to replace Blatter that's expected some time in early 2016.

By that point, qualification for the 2018 tournament will already be under way. Forget about the ethical issues – the logistics would be close to insurmountable.

Story continues below advertisement

There's also the fact that the only countries likely able to step in at the last moment and stage an event this size are England, the United States and Germany.

How will it look if Putin's greatest critics are seen benefiting from his high-profile embarrassment? I know how it'll look to him. It'll appear as a red cape being waved by the international community. If NATO's goal in Ukraine is to de-escalate a civil/proxy war, it won't help much.

Starting from a point of righteous indignation about something not terribly important – how soccer is governed – we might very quickly detour to a place of existential gravity. At the risk of sounding hysterical, people might very well die out of this.

Everyone involved ought to think deeply about that possibility when they're running around, hair on fire, shouting about the "fair" place to put up the circus tent.

They're already dying in Qatar, which simplifies things. That country is a far more likely target of the world's frustration – a sort of deserving scapegoat. At this point, you'd bet money the 2022 World Cup will be moved.

The logistics are relatively simple. The political downside is manageable. There are plenty of suitors. It'd be a convenient way for FIFA to be seen punishing someone, while protecting all the operators inside the Zurich cabal.

Story continues below advertisement

They'll be unhappy, but what are the Qataris going to do? They have a bunch of money, but no army worth the name.

In the end, this unravelling scandal may disprove the maxim about the golden rule. You need more than gold at this level. You need to frighten people into giving you what you want. Sadly, it works.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies