20 years under Putin: a timeline

Just as the International Federation of Association Football, better known as FIFA, is being hit by an enormous corruption scandal, Russian football is facing its own turmoil as well. Struggling with its own corruption issues, the economic recession, and construction delays in preparations for the 2018 World Cup, Moscow is having a hard time playing it cool. Given the country’s growing international isolation as a result of the Ukraine crisis, Vladimir Putin’s new “image project” might turn into another stress test for the regime.


With a dramatic resignation of Sepp Blatter (left) as head of FIFA amidst the corruption scandal, the circumstances under which Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup hosting rights will come under a close scrutiny. Photo: Reuters


In late May, the Russian Football Union, which manages Russia’s national team and oversees development of the sport domestically, voted to oust its head, former Soviet footballer Nikolai Tolstykh, after three mediocre years on the job. The vote to dismiss Tolstykh came amid chronic budget problems—the union had losses of 173.9 million rubles ($4.3 million) in 2014 and 658 million rubles ($19.8 million) in 2013—and a debacle last year in which the manager of the national team didn’t receive his salary for eight months. (He was eventually paid after Kremlin-friendly tycoon Alisher Usmanov gave the union an emergency loan.) In the lead-up to the vote, Tolstykh tried to deflect criticism by accusing unnamed individuals at Russian football clubs of corruption, saying he could give “concrete information on where the money has gone—to which accounts and which offshore [tax shelters].” He said that by misusing funds, the clubs had failed in their duty to develop football in Russia.

Tolstykh’s temporary replacement, 88-year-old former Soviet striker Nikita Simonyan, tried to rally the crowd by reminding them that at least they had the 2018 World Cup. He also mentioned a related victory for Russia: the success of embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter in retaining his position atop the football organization despite strong pressure for him to leave his post. “Blatter likes our country a great deal, and despite all the difficulties, despite all the attacks that have befallen the FIFA president, he remained standing and clearly stated that the World Cup will be held in Russia,” Simonyan said. That victory didn’t last long. Blatter announced that he would be quitting as president just four days after being reelected, amid reports that the United States is building a criminal case against him.

The Kremlin had great affection for Blatter—President Vladimir Putin even sent the 79-year-old Swiss a telegram after he was reelected praising his “professionalism and high authority.” But, oddly enough, Blatter’s resignation may have actually increased Russia’s chances of keeping the 2018 World Cup. If he had stayed on as FIFA president, influential Western countries might have rebelled and started a rival tournament—European football association UEFA (the Union of European Football Associations) had threatened to boycott the event if Blatter hadn’t stepped down. But without him, the path to reform is open, and Western nations have less of an excuse to split off. There is still the issue of alleged wrongdoing in FIFA’s selection of Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts in 2018 and 2022, a matter that Swiss authorities are currently investigating. German justice minister Heiko Maas even suggested that the choice of the two countries as hosts shouldn’t stand if bribery charges are substantiated. But with the 2018 World Cup only three years away, it would be more of a challenge to move it than it would to shift the Qatar event, which faces significant pushback anyway because of the deaths of laborers building football facilities there.

What remains a realistic threat to the 2018 World Cup in Russia is the possibility of a mass boycott by the West over Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and its poor human rights record. Calls for such a boycott began to be sounded last year after the conflict in Ukraine began, and depending on how Russia acts going forward, the calls could grow much louder. In addition, while the problems at the Russian Football Union likely won’t have an impact on World Cup preparations, other domestic issues could play a role. Some analysts have predicted that Russia will face unrest in 2016, potentially prompting Putin to create another “rally round the flag” event to regain voter support, which would increase the likelihood of a Western backlash.

Ultimately, it is too soon to predict the chances of a boycott. Russia’s hosting of the World Cup seems bizarre in the current political atmosphere, given the Kremlin’s openly hostile attitude toward the West, but Russia’s relationship with the world is constantly in flux. By 2018, Putin may even want to use the World Cup to revamp Russia’s image abroad and restore ties with Europe and the United States, as he tried to do with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

With the FIFA scandal playing out in the background, the Kremlin’s World Cup preparations go on unabated. Thus far, it appears the event will have many of the same benefits and downsides displayed by the 2014 Olympics. On the one hand, some economists say the event’s budget of about 660 billion rubles ($12.6 billion) represents a much-needed investment package for the country’s infrastructure. After all, more than half of government spending on the World Cup is earmarked for transportation in the 11 host cities, while only about a quarter will go to stadium construction. But the overall spending, including funds for stadia, is likely to increase as a result of the weaker ruble because of the need for certain imports related to the construction projects. And, just like with the Sochi venues, it is unclear whether some of the new stadia—such as the $300 million structure in host city Saransk, which has a population of just 300,000 people—will get much use after the World Cup is over.

Ultimately, it is too soon to predict the chances of a boycott. Russia’s hosting of the World Cup seems bizarre in the current political atmosphere, given the Kremlin’s openly hostile attitude toward the West, but Russia’s relationship with the world is constantly in flux.

There have also been the typical construction delays, just as there were in Sochi (and, admittedly, as there are in the organization of most international sporting events). Construction of the stadium in Kaliningrad is only supposed to start in August, which Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko admitted is cutting it close. Officials have cited a wide range of deadlines for construction to conclude on all nine uncompleted stadia, from May 2017 to fall 2017 to late December 2017 in the case of the Rostov-on-Don facility. The current economic crisis has forced the government to scale back on certain ideas for stadia—one official said the approach now was a “no frills” one. There will almost certainly be corruption related to the construction, as there was in Sochi, and other hot-button issues will likely appear as well. For instance, a Russian parliamentarian recently proposed using prison labor to produce construction materials for World Cup projects, arguing that it could help keep costs down. Given the well-known problems faced by Russian prisons, such an initiative may not sit well with other nations.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing Russian organizers is the prevalence of racist attitudes among Russian football fans. A recent report by the Moscow-based SOVA Center and the Football Against Racism in Europe network highlighted more than 200 incidents of discriminatory behavior linked to Russian football over just two seasons, including 72 displays of neo-Nazi symbols. “We can’t allow ourselves, as a general rule, to have such incidents, but even less so during a World Cup match,” FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke said in response to the report. Sports Minister Mutko has downplayed the problem, causing concern that Russia is not taking it seriously enough.

As Blatter recently noted, Russians will likely be proud to host the 2018 World Cup—assuming Russia gets to keep its hosting rights—and that’s a good thing. The Kremlin will likely score a domestic political victory by showing that despite stagnant economic growth and shrinking political freedoms, the country can still play host to the world. And judging by the way the Sochi Games were organized, the logistics for the World Cup will be more or less sound, and the Russian cities will be mostly gracious hosts (although the potential for racist incidents is high and dangerous).

But it is deeply unfortunate that billions of dollars will be spent on football stadia that have questionable future value while the country has a $51 billion budget deficit and is in the midst of an economic crisis. It’s also unfortunate that Russian fans who would really like a formidable team in the country’s favorite sport have to settle for the consolation prize of hosting the World Cup. Team Russia didn’t make it out of the group round at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and has currently dipped to #27 in the FIFA world rankings, below the teams of Romania, Slovakia, and Wales. As one user wrote in response to a Sports.ru poll last August: “Do you really think that Team Russia will perform well at this World Cup[?]. Personally, I doubt it will. And if that’s the case...what do we need it for anyway? It costs money, and more than a little... What, is there nothing else to spend it on?”