The beautiful game?

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Putin Puts His Money on FIFA's Boss

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The governing body of world soccer, FIFA, can count on the support of at least one major global corporation in its efforts to retain sponsors and survive corruption charges: Gazprom, the Russian state-owned natural-gas supplier. That's because Russia views U.S. prosecutors' charges against FIFA as an attack on its interests.

Gazprom's reaction to the FIFA scandal contrasts with that of other major corporate sponsors -- such as Visa Inc., which has threatened to remove its support. The Russian company, one of FIFA's five major partners for the 2018 World Cup,  said unequivocally that the U.S. indictments will not affect the relationship. Apparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the continued reign of President Joseph Blatter at FIFA as a guarantee that Russia will host the tournament as planned. This, in turn, will give Putin the opportunity to demonstrate that his falling out with the West over Ukraine hasn't undermined his ability to put on a lavish, world-class show like last year's Sochi Olympics.

Back in 2010, when the FIFA executive committee met in Switzerland to decide which countries would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Putin stayed away, ostensibly to avoid appearances of corruption and to allow the decision to be made "without any outside pressure." In his place, he sent Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who gave a comical speech in atrocious English.

Actually, Putin may have already known who would win. A report from The Sunday Times' investigative team, published last year by the U.K. parliament, said that Putin -- with the help of various Russian officials, friendly billionaires and a Qatari named Mohammed Bin Hammam, then head of the Asian Football Confederation -- arranged a vote exchange in which Russia would get the 2018 tournament and Qatar would get 2022. 

The U.S. indictment says nothing about the bidding process that led to the 2010 vote, but it does mention Bin Hammam, since disgraced and banned from soccer. He appears as "Co-Conspirator #7," who bribed other FIFA officials to support his bid for FIFA presidency in 2011. It's easy to imagine how the U.S. investigation could move from there to Bin Hammam's role in the 2010 vote. If Putin, who prefers ice hockey to soccer, saw winning the original bid as important enough for Russia to warrant some backroom dealing, a re-vote could be humiliating.

Hence, Putin and his team have been steadfast in their support of Blatter and the FIFA hierarchy. Putin today called the indictments an attempt by the U.S. to "stretch its jurisdiction to other countries" and  "a blatant violation of the principles on which international organizations function." Kremlin-loyal political scientist Sergei Markov went farther in a Facebook post, calling the U.S. move "a hostile takeover of FIFA" in which "the global hegemon gets new, unique ways of influencing many countries' policies through its influence on soccer, the game of millions."

Though the European soccer organization, UEFA, called for the FIFA presidential election to be postponed from Friday and even threatened to boycott it, Russia, a UEFA member, announced its intention to vote for Blatter. "FIFA must fight back," Mutko said in Zurich. 

Blatter has a good chance of winning the vote if it is held tomorrow, despite the support that his rival, Jordanian Prince Ali Al Hussein, has garnered from some of the biggest European soccer countries, including world champion Germany. Blatter's backing is strong among Asian and African soccer federations, which he has greatly empowered and enriched. They, and Russia, encourage him to throw down the gauntlet in the face of the U.S. challenge. 

That said, Blatter's resistance might ultimately do both him and Putin a disservice. U.S. investigators, who say FIFA is rotten from the top down, are likely to see defiance as a challenge. If they dig deeper into the World Cup bidding process, they may get results soon enough to move the 2018 tournament from Russia, which has already spent part of its $12.5 billion budget on stadiums, airports and other infrastructure.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net