how putin hacked world football

words: peter macia

illustration: alelli tanghal

Five days after thousands of young Russians gathered in Saint Petersburg’s Mars Field to protest government corruption, Vladimir Putin took to a luxury box across town to flaunt it. The Russian president stood at a podium high above the pitch in Krestovsky Stadium to launch the 2017 Confederations Cup, a de facto practice run for next summer’s World Cup. But instead of the well-oiled public relations event he had hoped it would be, the friendly tournament has brought new focus on accusations of money laundering, fraud, bribery, and labor abuses and a fresh doping scandal involving many of the host team’s players.

Ahead of the opening match between Russia and Oceania Confederation champion New Zealand, Putin thanked FIFA president Gianni Infantino for his friendship and personal assistance in staging the tournament and offered his welcome to an audience of approximately 50,000 in the 70,000-seat stadium. “We are united in believing that football should serve the purpose of social development, unite nations and continents, reaffirm the values of fair play, enhance determination and faith, and inspire and offer a dream to the younger generation,” Putin declared. Notably, the only words he did not say in Russian were “fair play,” presumably for reasons that had more to do with FIFA-trademarked phrases than a lack of literal English-to-Russian translation.

The average Russian in 2017 has likely given up hope of fair play on or off the pitch. Krestovsky is a mammoth silver spaceship that has taken 11 years to build on a budget said to have ballooned from $250 million at its groundbreaking to an estimated $1.5 billion and growing. Some of that inflation has been due to security and infrastructure upgrades that became necessary after Russia’s successful World Cup bid in 2010. Some has been due to the local government’s mismanagement of the project, where other stadiums’ construction projects have been overseen and funded by the federal government. But it remains unclear where most of this money has gone.

It has largely not gone to the men who actually built Krestovsky and several other stadiums. Human Rights Watch recently reported that laborers on six sites were forced to work under staggering conditions for little or no pay, and that as many as 17 workers have died on the job. Norwegian journalists provided additional details about the thousands of workers who have worked on the Krestovsky construction site. Eighty-percent have been migrant workers, many of whom have gone unpaid by the various subcontractors capitalizing on the project’s chaotic mismanagement. Of those workers, more than 100 North Korean laborers employed on site have had most of their earnings sent directly to North Korea’s state coffers. Yet FIFA has allowed construction to continue unabated.

This is most likely due to the absolute determination by Putin, the Russian Federation, and the uppermost executives at FIFA to make the 2018 World Cup an undeniable success so that they may brush aside the many allegations that they have corrupted the entire process  to make it happen.

Since the bidding process for the right to host began in 2009, there have been suspicions of corruption of the process. When England’s competing bid party was told of potential improprieties, it hired former MI6 officer Christopher Steele to compile a dossier of the Russian bid process. That dossier eventually led the United States Department of Justice to investigate the dealings of Chuck Blazer, a FIFA executive board member whose offices in Trump Tower included a suite for his many cats. That same dossier continues to be a source in the FBI’s ongoing investigations of both FIFA corruption and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Another investigator, Michael Garcia, was hired by FIFA itself in 2014 to determine the extent of corruption within the organization and recommend action against any individuals found to have violated FIFA’a ethics rules., First delivered to FIFA in late-2014 and just leaked to German newspaper Bild, the Garcia Report is a damning indictment of Qatar’s successful 2022 bid and the general business of nearly every bidding party for the World Cups between 2005 and 2022 (including England’s). Evidence against Russia is scant.

However, as noted by the Associated Press, “The timing is embarrassing for Russia, though it likely has little to fear directly from Bild. That is partly because Russia ‘made only a limited amount of documents’ available to Garcia’s team,” Eckert wrote in 2014. “Garcia had been banned in 2013 from entering Russia; the bid team’s leased computers were later destroyed; staffers’ email accounts were not retrieved from Google.”

Those computers have been linked to Putin’s longtime confidant, Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea FC, reigning champion of England’s Premier League. The Russia 2018 bid committee had rented computers from the Konoplyov Football Academy, which has been run by Abramovich’s Academy of Football since 2006.

Alexey Sorokin, the Russian bid committee’s CEO, has essentially pled ignorance. In 2014, he stated, “Whatever we could supply, everything we could supply to the investigation we did. But we have to bear in mind that four years have passed since then, so some of the information we could just forget, naturally.”

Unlike the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia and election tampering, Garcia had no power to subpoena, so his investigation of Russia’s bid went to the scrap heap along with those computers. Much like the Executive Branch of the United States government, however, the World Cup 2018 goes on, even though it will likely enrich and empower those currently suspected of attaining it by increasingly dubious means.

Vladimir Putin likely won’t be troubled by these accusations and implications. An ability to turn failure and suspicion in his favor has emerged as one of Putin’s most successful domestic political tactics. His approval rating of 85% over the last few years is evidence of the effectiveness of his campaign to convince the Russian people that any attack on him is an attack on them as well. Whether in response to an embargo, sanction or allegation, Putin has been able to communicate through state-controlled media a message that the West is trying to keep Russia from its rightful place as a world power.

Sport has been a potent form of propaganda. Through his frequent public displays of physical prowess—pumping iron, hunting, fishing, hang-gliding, horseback riding, judo training, and various other bare-chested feats—and large-scale events, Putin has cast himself as a superfit uber-sportsman, the ultimate Russian, and the only man who can carry Mother Russia toward a gleaming future.

The Sochi Olympics were Putin’s first major effort to broadcast this image of power and respectability to the world. Sochi succeeded in that it was almost entirely built-for-purpose and despite a few hiccups was largely seen as net-positive, even if its $50 billion cost will never see the black ink of a federal bank statement.

In this light, World Cup 2018 is the logical extension of Putin’s campaign for not only next spring’s presidential elections but potentially many to come. The Sochi Olympics were confined to one resort city. The World Cup will be staged in Russia’s 11 biggest cities and host millions of visitors and hundreds of media from the world, but more importantly populated by most of Russia’s voters.

It will not just be a sporting event; it will be the ultimate demonstration of Putin’s efforts to bring prosperity to the Russian people. Whether he spends the endless resources necessary to pull it off and whether the Russian people will actually prosper as a result are almost immaterial. Putin merely needs to achieve the effect of global reverence and relevance in order to bolster his position.

World Cup 2018 will be presented by FIFA and Putin as an opportunity to transcend politics through the beautiful game. From the bid to the construction to the execution, World Cup 2018 has laid bare the cynicism behind their statements. The connections between football and politics is as strong in today’s Russia as it has been in any host country since the World Cup began.

Roman Abramovich may have lent some computers to the bid committee, but that barely scratches the surface of his and his fellow oligarchs’ relationships to Putin.

The night Putin gave his acceptance speech to FIFA’s elite, Abramovich sat in the front row.

"This work is called public-private partnership,” Putin said when asked how he would finance venues and infrastructure.“With the construction of stadiums I have mentioned the Spartak stadium will be constructed by the Lukoil company and another will be built with the support of the VTB bank.

“In other territories we would like to attract the business community to minimize the state expenditure, and I do not rule out the possibility that Mr. Abramovich could participate in one of those projects."

Whether this was a veiled threat or public call-to-action, Putin had outlined his plan to repatriate some of the wealth he has conferred on a small cohort of oligarchs. Beyond Abramovich, there is Dmitry Rybolovlev, owner of French champion AS Monaco; Alisher Usmanov, minority owner of London’s Arsenal FC; Suleyman Kerimov, owner of  FC Anzhi Makhachkala; Yevgeni Giner, owner of CSKA Moscow; Leonid Fedun, owner Spartak Moscow; and various executives within European and Russian clubs and federations.

These men all became wealthy as the Soviet Union disintegrated and its utilities and industries were divvied up amongst them. One unifying entity between them has been state-owned oil and gas company, Gazprom, which many of them have invested in or filtered through at some stage of their ascendancies.

Gazprom is one of World Cup 2018’s chief sponsors, but the company has poured money into football in and out of Russia for over a decade. Gazprom is a major sponsor of Europe’s club competition, the Champions League. It is the shirt sponsor of German club, Schalke 04. It is the energy partner of Abramovich’s Chelsea. And perhaps most importantly, Gazprom owns Zenit St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin’s favored club since childhood.

These investments have allowed Putin to put Russian power on display around the world in a way that feels benign and appears to promote the game. They have also created a financial network whose worth grows even as Gazprom itself tanks.

But Putin never intended these men to work strictly within the confines of global football. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Rybolovlev was repeatedly linked with Donald Trump through investments and strange coincidences. Abramovich has been identified as the man who recommended Dmitry Medvedev to Putin as the man who could sit as president for one term while Putin sidestepped Constitutional term limits as prime minister between 2008 and 2012. And Alisher Usmanov remains a key ally in Putin’s very public fight against Alex Navalny, his main political opponent, regularly posting absurd video refutations of Navalny’s accusations of corruption against Putin, Usmanov and their cronies.

It was Navalny who organized the protests across Russia that drew thousands in over 100 cities just days before the Confederations Cup, and it will be Navalny who poses the greatest threat to a fourth presidential term for Putin. The Confederations Cup is Putin’s first and last chance before the March elections to prove that he can lead Russia to triumph regardless of Navalny’s claims, and he has so far used it to push all the right populist buttons.

Putin is adept at setting up scenarios in which every possible  outcome benefits him. This tactic was on full display when, prior to the Confederations Cup, Putin answered a question in his now famous annual televised call-in show. When a regular citizen asked for his thoughts on the Russian national team’s recent run of poor results, Putin firmly distanced himself from a squad that was assembled and supported by his go-to sport executive and advisor, Vitaly Mutko.

“Fans and those who love Russian football expect better results from our national team,” Putin said. “We’ll hope that the guys play with full commitment, like real warriors and athletes, to at least please the fans with their effort to win.”

The Russian team rose to the challenge and defeated New Zealand in its first match, under Putin’s watchful eye, then lost to Portugal and Mexico, eliminating the hosts from the knockout rounds. A day later it was revealed that the entire team was under investigation for doping.

If any performance-enhancing drugs were used, they did not enhance the Russians’ performances in this tournament or for the last year. They have not only been outrun by their opponents but easily outclassed. If Russia’s hopes were to get results through boundless energy and relentless effort, they will have to go back to the laboratory, as they have looked not only tactically naïve but incapable of putting together a decent 90 minutes. Since Russia won the right to host the World Cup, the national team has won just over half of its matches but in the process failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, lost all three of their games at the 2014 tournament and crashed out in the group stages of the 2012 and 2016 European Championships.

By criticizing the performance and commitment of the team, Putin cast himself as an ally of the fans, a man of the people. And although the team failed at the Confederations Cup, Putin can still bask in the splendour that he has provided to his people by bringing players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Alexis Sanchez, and Julian Draxler to their cities.

The tournament has served Putin’s purposes. It has been a fairly enjoyable teaser for the teams and players who will contend for the Jules Rimet trophy. It has been free of protests, fan violence, and infrastructure problems, all of which will reassure those planning to visit next summer. But most importantly, it has conveyed Putin’s competence and relevance, despite all the questionable activity behind the scenes.

Ahead of the elections and World Cup 2018, the path for Putin is not completely clear. He will have to show that he can improve working conditions at the ongoing stadium construction sites and decide if he cares if the Russian national team can or will be competitive. He will also need to make sure that the experience at the Confederations Cup’s can be scaled up from four venues in as many cities to a dozen in 11 cities.

Furthermore, as the presidents in South Africa and Brazil did prior to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, Putin will have to decide how and to what lengths he is willing to go to “clean up” his country before it is televised to billions around the world. If the past is any indication, he will go further than any World Cup host has ever gone. That does not bode well for Russia’s growing and youthful opposition.

As Putin asserted from his perch on the opening day of the Confederations Cup, he is confident. “I am certain that millions of people on the planet will see a beautiful, captivating show, the art of football masters, a real triumph of sport,” he said. Surely he could see the many disinterested Russian faces in the stands and hear the echo of his voice being hollowed by the many empty plastic seats. Surely he will privately hope that the captivating show of football masters he has been directing all these years will be enough to make millions of people in Russia suspend disbelief and give Putin a real triumph in his ongoing battle with reality.