ROME—It would seem that Russian president Vladimir Putin stopped at nothing to win the bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Now it appears he may have to do everything he can to keep it, as a steady drumbeat builds to boycott, move or postpone one of the sporting world’s most beloved events.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May announced this week that the United Kingdom would expel 23 Russian spies working under diplomatic cover and not send its own diplomats or the Royal family to the World Cup, because of the attempted murder of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, few thought that Putin would care. But as pressure builds on other World Cup participants to do that much or more, it is becoming clear that soccer has become a political football.
Labour MP John Woodcock called for an open discussion about whether to launch an international effort to petition FIFA to act. “I would like to see a parliamentary debate on whether concerted government action together with other countries to postpone the World Cup or move it to another venue would be the right way to go,” he said, according to the Guardian. “I don’t want to see anyone dictated to and I am not calling for England to unilaterally withdraw from the tournament. But there is a growing appetite among MPs to push for concerted international action over the World Cup. It should be on the table because of the appalling magnitude of what Russia has done,”
The call was echoed by several other British politicians, including another Labour MP Ian Austin, who told BBC 4 radio that he feared the way the Russian president might exploit the World Cup for propaganda. “I am very concerned that Putin will use the World Cup in the same way that Hitler used the 1936 Munich Olympics, as a public relations exercise for a brutal dictatorship,” he said.
But neither May nor Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary who initially hinted at such a boycott as a possible punishment for the spy poisoning, have since called on conservative party to apply pressure to FIFA.
It has been decades since anyone boycotted a major sporting event. In 1980, more than 60 countries followed President Jimmy Carter in boycotting the Olympic games in Moscow after the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, 14 Soviet allies then boycotted the Olympic games in Los Angeles in retaliation. World Cups have also been boycotted in the past. In 1974, the Soviet Union refused to play Chile in the final playoff game in what was then West Germany.
The 2018 World Cup has been tarnished since the bid was awarded to Russia in 2010. It was during that process that gave the 2018 World Cup bid to Russia and the 2022 bid to Qatar, that the FBI started a corruption investigation that led to the arrest of 14 FIFA officials, charging them with widespread corruption including taking bribes for bidding votes.
Writing in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer points out that former M-16 spy Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous dossier about Donald Trump’s alleged Russia connections, was the first to suspect foul play within the FIFA governing body when he started working as a private consultant for England’s Football Association.
Mayer names Steele as the “former MI6” agent identified as an anonymous source who spoke to the London Sunday Times about the investigation into Russian skullduggery during the World Cup bid. “The key thing with Russia was six months before the bid, it got to the point where the country feared the humiliation of being beaten and had to do something ... Putin dragged in all sorts of capabilities,” according to a memo submitted to Parliament by the Sunday Times Insight team in 2014. “Don’t expect me or anyone else to produce a document with Putin’s signature saying ‘Please, X, bribe Y with this amount in this way.’ He’s not going to do that.”
But the ex-MI6 agent with extensive Russia experience could not emphasize strongly enough what winning the 2018 Cup for Moscow meant to Putin: "Thoughts of legacy kicked in. 'I can't lose the World Cup. I can't watch it happen. I've got to do something about it.'"
With that in mind, the threat that Putin could now face the humiliation of losing the 2018 World Cup thanks to Britain seems like a far greater punishment than sending the spies home from London.
When reached, FIFA refused to make a comment on the record to The Daily Beast, but several sporting world sources including the Spanish sports site AS report that FIFA is in a “state of panic.”
“Publicly, world football's governing body has remained silent, but high-ranking officials are privately acknowledging that ‘the poisoning of Sergei Skripal has been the straw that broke the camel's back. Tensions have reached breaking point,’” the sports site reported. “The British, who have confirmed that no dignitaries will be in Russia, have begun conversations with their western allies with a view to leaving Vladimir Putin sitting in an empty Luzhniki Stadium royal box at the opening ceremony on 14 June,” the site reported, claiming, “The United States supports such a measure.”
If international pressure builds and Russia loses the game, Putin may finally get the penalty he deserves.