Conspiracy theories continue to abound in the aftermath of the FIFA corruption scandal, especially with regard to Russia’s 2018 World Cup bid. The recent departure of FIFA head Sepp Blatter only makes things murkier.
A protester wearing a mask depicting FIFA President Sepp Blatter stands in front of the building where the 65th FIFA congress takes place in Zurich, Switzerland, Friday, May 29, 2015. Photo: AP
The world today is witnessing a major soccer conflict that carries with it increasingly geopolitical overtones. The FIFA scandal, involving U.S. Department of Justice charges against nine senior functionaries of the organization and five other sports officials with bribery, fraud and racketeering, has provoked a political confrontation between Russia and the United States and the stunning resignation of long-time FIFA head Sepp Blatter.
The scandal – and its resulting aftershocks - has caused a real earthquake in the Russian media and social networks. The shock waves will take a while to disperse. The Kremlin’s main accusation against America — from officials and the public alike — is that the United States wants to steal their dream of hosting the 2018 World Cup. But is that really so?
World Cup 2018: Under attack?
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Moscow has many unanswered questions regarding the detention of the FIFA officials. The Foreign Ministry considers the extraterritorial use of U.S. law to be illegal, according to Alexander Lukashevich, a ministry spokesperson.
Alexei Pushkov, head of the State Duma International Committee, wrote on Twitter that the desperate assault on the 2018 World Cup in Russia represented the death throes of the policy of isolation.
“The desperate assault on Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup looks like the death throes of the policy of isolation and an attempt to avenge the politically successful anniversary of Victory Day in Moscow,” tweeted Pushkov.
Meanwhile, Russia’s leading sports newspaper Soviet Sport published the results of readers’ responses to the following question: “What is the hidden purpose of the investigation of corruption at FIFA?”
Of the most popular responses, the highest percentage of respondents – 36 percent – saw it as a conspiracy against Russia to remove FIFA president Sepp Blatter from his post. 32 percent saw it as an internal struggle within FIFA. And only 22.5 percent saw it as an ordinary police investigation.
The results can be explained by the so-called “Americans climb into all holes” theory, popular in Russia and the Russian language, which states that the United States pokes its nose into places where no one asks it to and where no one supports it. This theory is backed by a considerable number of political and sports commentators in Europe and the United States itself.
Polish journalist Pavel Zazhechny writes in the newspaper Polska that the United States “wants to interfere in everything, playing the role of the sole righteous man and trying to create an image not of a brutal cop, but of a fair-minded sheriff with a star on his chest.” However, according to the Polish journalist, thanks to FIFA, America eases through the qualifiers into every single World Cup, even though they don’t know how to play the game.
Likewise, some American journalists are raising their eyebrows at the U.S. attempt to probe into the FIFA corruption scandal.
For example, Zachary Karabell asks the question if the United States is “now acting like the world's prosecutor” and warns against being “a global judge and prosecutor” because “such actions are likely to generate backlash abroad and needlessly risk damaging America’s standing in the world.”
“The saying goes: don’t mix politics and sport,” writes Finian Cunninghan. “That is exactly what the U.S. authorities seem to be doing over this week’s dramatic arrests of World Cup officials and allegations of rampant fraud amounting to $150 million.”
Given that the next host country is Russia, the analyst sees the true motive for the persecution of FIFA as America’s desire to create a “climate of scandal and smear” in the run-up to 2018.
It is curious that, on the day when the charges against the FIFA functionaries were announced by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Assistant Dean of George Washington University Jessica Tillipman stated that grounds for initiating criminal proceedings against a non-U.S. citizen could be a visit, a phone call or even an email sent to the United States.
“There has to be some sort of touch point for the United States,” Tillipman said.
Will such reasoning satisfy Russian soccer fans? Unlikely.
Amidst the FIFA scandal, conspiracy theories abound
The history of lifting the lid on financial fraud, bribery and racketeering contains some no less interesting footnotes, all pointing to a lack of common sense and the intellectual degradation of the “civilized link” between Russia and the United States. Soon after the arrest of the FIFA functionaries in Zurich, U.S. comedian Andy Borowitz published an article in The New Yorker entitled “McCain Urges Military Strikes Against FIFA.”
That very same day Rossiyskaya Gazeta delivered its own “reply to Chamberlain.” Ignoring the fact that the Borowitz piece was clearly marked in the Humor section, author Vladislav Vorobyev laid into the U.S. senator.
“U.S. politicians violate international law with a degree of permissiveness and impunity that has caused them to lose touch with reality,” the author writes. “... The U.S. senator calls on the White House to launch a new military operation. No, not against an insidious enemy that threatens America... McCain has decided to let loose the Pentagon on an international organization. The target of his hotheadedness this time is FIFA.”
It would be funny if it were not so sad, as Russians are particularly fond of saying. Russia cannot grasp that U.S. policy has remained unchanged for decades. If a foreigner lights up the radar with his illegal actions on U.S. soil, the authorities will take all measures to detain him wherever he may be. Many U.S. federal laws apply to all countries, especially those pertaining to financial crime.
The website Vox cites as an example the case of former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo, who was convicted in the United States of money laundering. U.S. authorities made it their business on the grounds that suspicious transactions had passed through banks in the United States.
American law is like that, and should be recognized as such. There is no reason not to believe Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s assertion that U.S. law enforcement agencies have been investigating FIFA for the past 19 years, especially given that Western publications report new cases of corruption in FIFA almost daily.
The New York Times recently wrote that U.S. authorities possess evidence that in 2008 FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke transferred $10 million from internal accounts to the organization’s former vice president, Jack Warner, who stands accused of corruption. But the investigation might be not devoid of a political component: the arrests took place just two days before the FIFA presidential election. The long-serving Blatter was re-elected despite the corruption scandal, but was subsequently pressured to resign just days later.
Blatter, Russia and poor countries
Regarding Blatter’s policy in Russia, world opinion is divided. While some believe he should step down because of the alleged perennial corruption in FIFA, others argue that he contributed to developing a good FIFA strategy in poor countries.
“The case of corruption in FIFA is not unique. When someone has been in charge of an administrative structure for a long time, corruption and so-called crony capitalism are bound to appear,” says Yuliy Nisnevich, professor of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a soccer ball during the official ceremony of handover to Russia as the 2018 World Cup hosts, after the World Cup final soccer match between Germany and Argentina at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: AP
"His tenure has been marked by a steady stream of internal and external investigations into embezzlement and bribery, not to mention allegations of vote buying in the selection of Russia and Qatar to host the next two World Cups," wrote Bloomberg. "Of the 22 FIFA executive committee members who voted in the Russia and Qatar selections, at least half have been accused of corruption related to the process."
However, some experts talk about the positive contribution of Blatter.
“FIFA’s strategy is to develop football worldwide and give priority to those countries that have never hosted the World Cup,” says Russian sports commentator Andrei Malosolov. “Brazil and South Africa, for instance, had poorly developed infrastructure, so many questions were asked. But did these countries not deserve the World Cup? The same story with Russia and Qatar. Obviously Britain and the United States also wanted to host it — and could so at the drop of a hat because everything’s already in place. But FIFA’s strategy is what it is, and the associations under it concur, so the strategy just needs to be followed.”
The FIFA scandal and its implications for U.S.-Russia relations
Sadly, however, the U.S. legal juggernaut has gone into operation at a time of deep mistrust between Russia and the United States. The U.S. investigation is seen in Russia as a blatant provocation, adding fuel to the flames of anti-US sentiment.
In Russia, the FIFA scandal has fallen on fertile ground. The feverish atmosphere inside the Kremlin caused by the worsening economy, continuing sanctions and uncertainty over the status of Donbas means that even the slightest mention of scrapping the World Cup could aggravate the already less-than-perfect relations between Russia and the United States.
Let us hope that cooler heads prevail, especially given the new controversies swirling around the unplanned departure of FIFA head Sepp Blatter. The two sides should fight on the playing field, not on the information battlefield. This would be safer both for Russia and the world.