The Man Behind the Scenes: Putin’s Grip on FIFA
Russia has been the center of controversy since the Soviet era. In the last two years, Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 American Presidential elections has been all over the political airwaves. But, Russian corruption isn’t only limited to politics. With the World Cup just days away, Russian sports is now the center of controversy. Vladimir Putin has promoted sports for years as an effort to reestablish the Soviet-era superiority. He exploits sports’ unique way of galvanizing national pride and uniting people under a common cause. This effort culminated in the tainted 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, in which 1,000 Russian athletes, including 34 soccer players, were found to be involved in blood doping. FIFA responded with a slow investigation and an attitude of indifference. This meager response was due to Russian corruption that invaded a world sports organization to the point that cheating was acceptable and without consequence.
Russia’s plot began by infiltrating FIFA’s organization with Russian citizens, including Vitaly Mutko. Mutko was directly and personally tied to the cover-up of Russian soccer doping. While on the FIFA council, he was appointed Russian deputy prime minister – a direct violation of FIFA’s rule prohibiting government officials from serving on the council. Under FIFA president Gianni Infantino, however, rules were bent and Mutko was allowed to run for re-election. Infantino permitted this because he feared the Russians reaction if Mutko wasn’t reelected.
Infantino squashed any opposition to the Russian influence over the FIFA council. Miguel Maduro, chairman of FIFA’s independent governance committee, fought back. After about a year on the job, Maduro was unceremoniously fired when he successfully blocked Mutko from maintaining his seat on the committee. Despite Maduro’s efforts, however, the Russians ultimately retained their seat. For some unexplained reason, Geir Thorsteinsson timely withdrew his name for consideration for the seat, and Russian Alexei Sorokin, chief executive of Russia’s World Cup organizing committee, ran unopposed and won. Similarly, Infantino dismissed the leader of the FIFA ethics committee while it was investigating Russian meddling in Infantino’s own election for President of FIFA. Coincidentally, three months later that same committee ruled that Infantino didn’t commit any ethical violations.
FIFA CORRUPT FROM THE INSIDE AND OUT
Russia’s grip on FIFA doesn’t stop with personnel inside the organization. Supposed coincidental links between FIFA and Russia became less coincidental upon investigation. For instance, Gazprom, a Russian state-owned energy company, is also an official partner of FIFA and a sponsor of the World Cup. Further, Fancy Bear, the same hacker group that attacked the DNC during the 2016 US presidential election, also attacked the investigation agencies such as the US Anti-Doping Agency, World Anti-Doping Agency, and International Olympic Committee. Yet, with all these links to corruption and collusion, the IOC and FIFA failed to impose any real punishment on Russia and their sports teams.
Despite the evidence of doping, bribery, and hacking, Russia is preparing to host the 2018 World Cup. With more Russian-related news breaking just weeks before the start of the competition, we may learn more in the final days before and throughout the games. The Russian national team didn’t need to qualify since they play host. Who knows what will come of the tournament if Russia doesn’t make it out of the competitive group stage. With the World Cup being played in their backyard, Putin has a unique opportunity to further contaminate FIFA from just outside Moscow.