FIFA and Putin Understand Each Other Very Well

FIFA President Sepp Blatter (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the official ceremony of handover to Russia as the 2018 World Cup hosts in Rio de Janeiro on July 13 Photograph by Alexei Nikolsky/Presidential Press Service via AP Photo

Last year the Kremlin published photographs of a meeting at which Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled energy giant, became the highest-level sponsor of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organization that runs international soccer. There was FIFA President Sepp Blatter, alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, Gazprom Chief Executive Alexei Miller, and Vitaly Mutko, who is both head of the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Sport and a member of FIFA’s executive committee.

Just a group of guys who like soccer, hanging out.

“That’s a hell of a powerful network,” says Alan Tomlinson, a professor at Brighton University’s School of Sport & Service Management and the author of books and articles about FIFA. He believes that Putin understands FIFA in a way most other heads of state don’t. “The Russian story,” Tomlinson says, “is one of a planned, sustained, and resourced campaign to gain influence and affect people over a period.”

It is unprecedented, Tomlinson says, for a government minister such as Mutko also to sit on FIFA’s executive board. It is also, in theory, a violation FIFA’s own rules. Mutko ran Russia’s bid for the 2018 World Cup—and he also had a vote in the body that decided it.

Tomlinson lays out a timeline: In 2008, Russia created its Ministry of Sport, with Mutko at its head. In 2009, Mutko got a seat on FIFA’s executive committee. In 2010, the committee voted on the 2018 World Cup. Putin also likely held secret talks with two-thirds of the executive committee before the vote. “Putin has charisma,” says Tomlinson, “but he’s not showing up at the last minute.”

Contrast that with the effort that the U.K. put into a bid for the 2018 World Cup. Prince William, Prime Minister David Cameron, and prime footballer David Beckham flew to Geneva on a lobbying trip that the British press referred to as two toffs and a twerp. “The mystery to me is that some of those people believe they can make a difference by, say, a last-minute arrival and a pitch,” says Tomlinson.

Peter Rohlmann of PR Marketing, a German sports marketing consulting firm, points to Putin’s relationships with the International Olympic Committee and Formula 1, which will hold its first Grand Prix event in Russia this fall—in Sochi, of all places. Rohlmann also puts a number on Gazprom’s involvement with FIFA. For a four-year partner sponsorship, the company would have had to pay between $80 million and $100 million. This kind of involvement makes bribery irrelevant. Who needs an envelope full of cash when a state-owned company is already a top-level sponsor?

And once a decision is reached, there’s very little incentive for anyone involved in FIFA to change it. “My guess is that on the political side, once the FIFA executive committee has reached a decision, it is unlikely that any moral or humanitarian reasons can lead the committee to revoke that decision or have an influence on it,” says Rohlmann. Sponsors issue periodic slaps on the wrist, but as consumer-facing companies, they have an interest in the markets that FIFA has been choosing: Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Russia. (For more on sponsor apathy, see Ira Boudway’s Bloomberg Businessweek piece on the controversy around the 2022 Qatar World Cup.)

Even if FIFA’s sponsors were to collect enough dudgeon to do something about it, the same opacity that drives the organization’s decisions prevents any move to change its mind. Thirteen members of the executive board must agree to call a meeting. In other words, there’s a prevote on every subject before it can even be put to a vote, in the same body that Putin already so ably lobbied. And FIFA President Sepp Blatter, literally referred to in the organization’s internal documents as “supreme leader,” decides what goes on the agenda. “I can’t think of any definitive principle of how you would do this,” says Tomlinson.

Sure enough, after I talked with Tomlinson and Rolhmann, FIFA released a statement on Friday morning:

“FIFA is convinced that, through football, particularly the FIFA World Cup and its international spotlight, we can achieve positive change in the world, but football cannot be seen as a solution for all issues, particularly those related to world politics. We have seen that the FIFA World Cup can be a force for good and FIFA believes this will be the case for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

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