In international politics, it’s not a great sign when Vladimir Putin is the only guy standing up for you. This is, after all, the man who praised Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s sexual prowess after he was accused of multiple counts of rape, and is also just about the only head of state who still hangs out with Silvio Berlusconi. So I’m not sure embattled FIFA head Sepp Blatter should necessarily be encouraged that Putin is now going to bat for him.
Yesterday, Putin denounced the arrests of top FIFA officials, implying that it was an attempt by the U.S. to take the World Cup away from Russia. “We know about the pressure that he has been put under to cancel the 2018 World Cup in Russia,” Putin said of Blatter in remarks posted on the Kremlin’s website. The Russian president also invoked the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, calling the FIFA indictments “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” Whatever your opinions on those two, comparing the Forbes-listed head of the world’s most popular sport to fugitive whistleblowers is a little rich.
Putin does have reason to worry: After yesterday’s arrests, Swiss officials announced that they are opening an investigation into allegations of corruption in the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The Russian bid has faced allegations of bribery since the decision was made in 2010, including reports in the British press that that a senior European soccer official was given a Picasso in exchange for his support. A controversial FIFA-commissioned investigation—that was subsequently disowned by its own investigator—cleared Russia along with Qatar of any wrongdoing last year, though it also noted that the Russian bid team had made “only a limited amount of documents available for review.”
There were already calls last year, notably from the Ukrainian government, for Western countries to boycott the 2018 World Cup on political grounds. As with the negative Western media coverage of the Sochi Olympics in 2014, many Russians may see the multiple investigations into the Russian bid and calls to strip the country of its World Cup as another U.S.-led attempt to steal Russia’s moment in the sun. Putin, who’s an expert at this sort of thing, is sure to take full advantage of the sentiment.