Putin’s World Cup Picasso ‘Bribe’

Allegations that Russians bribed a senior soccer official with a painting by Picasso should be the final straw: Russia must not host the 2018 World Cup.

Friedemann Vogel/FIFA via Getty Images

With every passing day, the thought that Russia is going to host the 2018 soccer World Cup fills one with a deeper and more urgent dread. Not since the Berlin Olympics in 1936 has the world faced the prospect of a sporting event of this stature being hosted by a country whose immoral leader poses a mortal threat to international peace and stability. I am not equating Vladimir Putin with Adolf Hitler, of course, for to do so would only play into the hands of the Russian and his apologists. But one doesn’t have to be as murderous as Hitler to be morally unacceptable—just as one doesn’t have to search for historical analogies, necessarily, to abhor Putin.

The next World Cup must not be held in Russia. This publication was among the first to call for Russia to be stripped of the right to host the Cup, and in the months since the call was made—in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—pressure has grown on FIFA, the body that (mis)governs world soccer, to designate another nation as host for 2018. Yet Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, has resisted all such calls, insisting that Russia’s host-nation status is irrevocable. To his eternal discredit, Blatter stood adamantly by Putin not long after Moscow-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine shot down a Malaysian civilian airliner, killing all passengers aboard. It is almost as if the award of the event to Russia is a matter more sacred than the sovereignty of an independent nation and the lives of 300 airborne civilians.

FIFA is an organization of almost unparalleled opacity, and ever since the award to Russia of the 2018 Cup—as well as that of 2022 to the upstart emirate of Qatar—evidence has emerged of a selection process that was profoundly corrupt. FIFA suppressed its own report into the matter, the result of an inquiry conducted by Michael J. Garcia, an American lawyer; instead, it offered the world a summary of Garcia’s report that was so anodyne that Garcia himself rejected it as a whitewash.

Into this murky ethical swirl has landed news that Putin may have bribed an icon of world soccer, Michel Platini, with the gift of a Picasso in exchange for his support of Russia’s bid for the 2018 Cup. The Sunday Times of London has reported that it has given a U.K. parliamentary committee evidence of such a Russian gift. Platini, who heads the powerful Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), has denied that he received the painting, alleged to have been taken from the collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. If true, however, this would be bribery at its most audacious—and creative.

The Russians categorically—and predictably—deny “all of the allegations” made by the newspaper, which include an intelligence report that Putin “took a personal interest in the running of [Russia’s] bid in mid-2010.” Indications of Putin’s intimate involvement in the bid are scarcely surprising. From the start, he saw in his country’s bid for the World Cup a glittering opportunity for personal and national aggrandizement. The Cup is a prestige project on which he has staked his reputation. His bid for the World Cup was the classic tyrant’s play for a bombastic project that would bolster his prominence, for theater that would infuse his beleaguered subjects with self-worth—all the better to distract them from their dwindling corpus of rights, their evaporating democracy, and their precarious economic situation. Putin must now pay for a vast new sporting and transport infrastructure that would sustain a World Cup, even as tumbling oil prices are ravaging the Russian economy.

Putin is currently as close to being a pariah as it is possible for a leader of a state of Russia’s stature to be. There are American and European Union sanctions in place against Russia—sanctions that are essentially ad hominem, it should be said, as they are intended to wound Putin—and the Russian president was treated like an undesirable intruder at the recent G-20 summit. He left the event early, and in a huff. If Western leaders diss Putin, it is no more than repayment to him in coin that he has minted: He keeps insulting the West in word and gesture, and has pointedly launched the first steps of a new kind of “cold war” by sending warships and planes into NATO zones.

There are some who would argue, even while conceding Putin’s ugliness, that undoing something as definitive as the award of a World Cup is unprecedented, and that Russia’s conduct doesn’t rise to a level that would warrant a revocation of host-status for the first time in history. After all, didn’t authoritarian China hold the Olympics in 2008, not to mention the 1978 soccer World Cup in an Argentina run by a nasty military junta? (The Moscow Olympiad in 1980 was boycotted partially, not revoked.)

The correct response would be to accept that both Argentina in 1978 and Beijing in 2006 were far from ideal venues—regrettable venues, in fact. But the dangers posed by the authoritarian nature of those regimes were not the same as Russia’s brazen violation of fundamental international norms: the invasion of a neighboring country, the shooting down of a civilian airliner, both of which constitute a repudiation of civilized global standards. The Olympics and the World Cup are both institutions, and they presuppose an acceptance by the host state of certain codes of conduct in its relations with other states. Putin has been in serial violation of those codes, and threatens to continue, not curb, his pattern of transnational infractions.

The time is ripe—and right—for action to begin that would divest Russia of the World Cup and award it to another nation. On his present trajectory, Putin shows no signs that he will conform to international legal and moral norms. Past experience shows that a host nation requires at least three years to ready itself for a tournament of the magnitude of a soccer World Cup. Take the Cup away from Russia now, and we will have the time for countries to bid afresh for 2018. Let the process be transparent and clean, worthy of a sport that has a greater, more passionate, following worldwide than any other. And let us be sure, also, that the Picasso goes back to the Hermitage Museum. Putin can keep his painting. But he can’t be allowed to keep the World Cup.