FIFA and UEFA must learn from the Russia and Qatar experience

Football was warned about Russia and is being cautioned over Qatar. For a game that goes to great lengths to virtue signal whenever it can and attach itself to causes, from rainbow laces to food poverty, not to mention the black lives matter campaign, football can be pretty naïve sometimes. Or maybe it is simply seduced by money and bullied by professional politicians?

The latest threat to football’s sanity – and credibility – is crypto currency, snake-oil salesmen are pitching up with their beards, tattoos and baseball caps, calling everyone “guys” and promising to make fans beneficiaries of possibly the greatest example of smoke and mirrors since Danny Kaye sang about a Danish king being in the “altogether”.

But this is merely part of a trend of delusion that has engulfed football for some years. Football’s governing bodies have shown they are more than capable of being attracted to shiny things, such as buckets of money from sponsors or backers that will use the world’s most popular sport to launder their image (if not their money).

FIFA were lambasted for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, UEFA were criticised for allowing Russia’s Gazprom for having such an influence on European football. The Gazprom logo became ubiquitous, their strange, partly-animated TV ads were somewhat ominous for as well as lighting up the Champions League, they also had the power to switch off Europe. The willingness to jump into bed with anyone willing to bring along their wheelbarrows full of cash, not only paints people as foolhardy, it also suggests procedures such as due diligence and reputational risk are severely lacking. Notwithstanding the stupidity of continually expanding competitions, increasing fixture lists and greasing-up to nations with dubious human rights records, most of the sensible world has told FIFA and UEFA, repeatedly, they are making very damaging misjudgements.

Football does have a track record of ridiculous errors. It also swims in a sea of hypocrisy and if footballers in England and other countries were really as savvy as they portray, they would walk away from a winter World Cup in Qatar. But equally, the governing bodies allow themselves to be manipulated and no matter how much they try to talk-up 2022, they have miscalculated the impact Qatar (and indeed, Russia), will have on the long-term reputation of FIFA and football.

Football has to think more about reputational and concentration risk. Two World Cups have damaged the governing bodies but also highlight the game’s habit of easily shelving its values.

Gianni Infantino’s message to Russia after 2018 now looks as pollyanna as Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” demonstration. “You welcomed the world as friends and those bonds of friendship will never be broken. This is not the end, it is only the beginning.” Poor old Gianni, he must be very red-faced when he reads that today. Four years later, Russia is at war with Ukraine and millions of people are suffering.

Sadly, there are precedents to consider, such as the 1936 Olympics where Adolf Hitler’s Germany greeted the world. Three years on, Germany invaded Poland and life was never the same. In 1934, Italy was host nation for the World Cup and a year later, invaded Abyssinia. In 1978, a Junta-led Argentina won their own World Cup and in 1982, took over the Falkland Islands and then went to war with Britain. In the case of Russia, everyone was a little nervous about the 2018 World Cup but equally, came away believing the country had embarked on a charm offensive.

The subsequent events in Ukraine have shown that Vladimir Putin was as genuine as Hitler in his outward displays of affection. As a result, Gazprom has been removed from the FIFA partnership group and Schalke 04 are no longer sponsored by the Russian energy company. The impact of the war has extended to British football, most notably with the sanctions on Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich. While the story has moved on and Chelsea are now in US hands, there should be few complaints about the removal of an owner whose links with the Russian regime are well documented. He helped Gazprom’s growth by selling his stake in Sibneft to the Saint Petersburg-based company.

Gazprom are 51%-owned by the Russian state, so their involvement in football around Europe represents a back-door route into expanding their footprint. Putin’s government has exercised systematic control over many aspects of Russian business, namely banks, petrochemicals and infrastructure. Gazprom does not sell gas to consumers directly, it sells its offering to governments and as the world’s biggest natural gas company, it is accountable for 17% of global production and around 8% of Russian GDP. Conversely, Gazprom is one of the biggest producers of Carbon Dioxide emissions, a fact that has made them unpopular with many people, as evidenced at a football match between Basel and Schalke 04 when a huge banner was unfurled sending a message to the Russians – “Don’t foul the Arctic”.

But Gazprom’s strategy in football has actually been quite transparent. Schalke 04, who Gazprom began sponsoring in 2007, are based in the Ruhrgebeit, an area in Germany that produces vast quantities of coal. Gazprom were involved in negotiations with Germany over the constructions of a Russian-German pipeline. Having dealt with that project, Gazprom looked further south and bought a controlling stake in Naftna Industrija Srbije, Serbia’s state-owned and gas company.  From 2010, they also sponsored Red Star Belgrade, saving the club from bankruptcy while strengthening links in Serbia.

UEFA and FIFA have both embraced Gazprom with such eagerness they must be questioning their practices, such was the scope of their sponsorship that you have to wonder about concentration risk. If Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City (and Newcastle United will come under more pressure with regards to their Saudi Arabian ownership) are highlighted for being state-run or controlled, then surely the governing bodies must face similar criticism. Notwithstanding the World Cup bidding process and how Russia and Qatar won their rights, the involvement of Gazprom must border on a form of state-controlled involvement? If nothing else, it also smacks of concentration risk to have such a presence from one company.

Going forward, both UEFA and FIFA will need to implement far greater intensity around their compliance operations and the basic principles behind placing trust in suspect regimes. This is, after all, not just a case of holding a football tournament, FIFA’s reputation is at stake, and no amount of money can buy a good name once you have lost your credibility. Football needs a strong regulator, robust and value-driven leadership and a clear understanding of what right and wrong look like. In an era of mistrust and scrutiny of business, social and political practices, football should be no different.

Guest Slot: Should Russia be hosting?

WHEN Russia was awarded the hosting rights to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it wasn’t totally unfair to dismiss the reaction – particularly that of the English – as sour grapes. After all, there was a certain expectation among the England camp that it was their moment: a feeling of entitlement that it was their chance to win the tournament in the home of football once again. Olaf Peter Jensen addresses the elephant in the room.

Fortunately for Russia – but unfortunately for England’s chances of seeing the decision somehow overruled – the whole event was overshadowed by the ludicrous choice to send the 2022 edition of the World Cup to Qatar. As a result, few people at the time questioned whether Russia was a suitable host for the competition.

And indeed, from a footballing perspective, Russia isn’t such an outlandish choice. They have a fairly successful football tradition, havin

Photo: Vaiz Ha via flickr CC-BY-2.0

g won, as the Soviet Union, the very first European Championship in 1960; at the time they were captained by Lev Yashin, a Russian-born goalkeeper widely considered the greatest of all time. They’ve been innovators, too. It was a Russian, Victor Maslov, who invented the 4-4-2 formation as manager of Dynamo Kyiv in the 1960s. His team was among the first to utilise the pressing game, and implemented new developments in nutrition and fitness to create a team well ahead of its time.

But Russia’s national significance can perhaps be overstated: the country’s cultural dominance within the Soviet Union means it’s easy to forget that the nation’s best players, best managers, and best clubs were often not Russian. Of the three Soviet players to be awarded the Ballon d’Or, two – Oleh Blokhin and Ihor Belanov – were Ukrainian; the very best Soviet manager, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, was born in Kiev; and the most formidable club in the Soviet Union were Dynamo Kyiv, who won 13 Top League titles and two UEFA Cup Winners’ Cups.

And today, you’d struggle to name a single Russian player. It is telling that, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian national team has never qualified for the knockout stage of the three World Cups it has played in, and only done so once in the Euros. Its clubs have fared better: CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg won the UEFA Cup in 2005 and 2008 respectively, and make regular appearances in the Champions League, but it’s fair to say that they no longer hold the cachet they once did. But these days it’s not the clubs that strike fear into the hearts of the top European clubs, but the fans – and this is where the trouble begins.

Racism and violence among Russian football fans has been under heavy scrutiny, particularly in the wake of an unprecedented level of organised hooliganism during Euro 2016. In Marseille and Lille, Russian thugs, wearing masks and carrying improvised weapons, clashed with England fans with an almost military level of planning and organisation; dozens of supporters were injured, and two were left in a coma, having been beaten by thugs wielding iron bars and throwing chairs.

The violence made for harrowing viewing. Documentaries have since followed gangs of thugs into the Russian woods, where hyper-masculine, Fight Club-esque punch-ups are held to train new generations of hooligans. The groups, heavily linked with Russian nationalist and neo-Nazi ideology, fight not just for the love of violence – a fixture at Russian Premier League matches – but also for national pride. They see the mockery and derision of loutish, lippy, provocative English fans as another symptom of the emasculation of their country at the hands of the decadent West. The solution is obvious: all out war.

Worst of all, it seems to be tolerated, if not actively encouraged by the Russian political establishment. During Euro 2016, Igor Lebedev, a nationalist MP and a member of the Russian Football Union, tweeted ‘I see nothing terrible with the fans fighting. On the contrary, well done our boys. Keep it up!’ He added on his website that ‘The lads defended the honour of their country and did not let English fans desecrate our motherland.’

Although hooliganism can be contained by the Russian authorities, the pervasive and often violent racism is more difficult to overcome – it’s a particular concern with five African nations and dozens of black players from around the world competing in the tournament. Black players are regularly subject to abuse at Russian league and international matches. For instance, Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos had bananas thrown at him during his spell as an Anzhi Makhachkala player, and the Ivorian Yaya Touré received a hail of monkey chants from CSKA Moscow supporters when they played Manchester City in 2013. His protestations to the referee were fruitless against the crowd.

Racist abuse and violence is already common in Russia, targeting black and Muslim individuals. Furthermore, oppressive anti-LGBT laws and and intense, rampant homophobia make attending the tournament a risk for LGBT supporters. With millions of fans from all over the world set to attend the World Cup, how seriously can we take Russian assurances of safety and security for its guests?

No FIFA official could have cast his vote in 2005 without knowledge of the racism, the homophobia, the violence and the hooliganism that pervade Russian football culture and wider society. It would take a particularly nasty, morally bankrupt individual to happily back Russia’s bid for the tournament, knowingly putting fans in danger.

Bribery and corruption seem to present something of an explanation; ever since the vote was concluded, football officials have been liberal with their allegations. But, when it comes to Vladimir Putin’s totalitarian mafia state, it’s difficult to discount. After all, evidence has since emerged of a massive, state-sponsored doping operation, that has implicated over a thousand Russian athletes, seen 51 Olympic medals stripped from them, and had the country banned from both the 2016 Paralympic Games and the 2018 Winter Olympics.

In the years following the decision, Russia has invaded two countries, propped a brutal dictatorship in Syria, interfered in elections and funded populist groups across the Western world, poisoned two people on the streets of Salisbury, created a dictatorship and burgeoning cult of personality, quashed dissent and murdered opposition leaders and journalists. They hold international law in contempt, they celebrate corruption as a national pastime, and they laud the violence and racism of their football fans. And beyond all that, they’re not very good at football either. If FIFA still believe they made the right choice, how can they be taken seriously as custodians of the global game?

Olaf Jensen’s blog, Letterhole, can be found here