Russia's World Cup, a year from now, will be politically awkward

Leander Schaerlaeckens
Vladimir Putin
Putin and FIFA president Gianni Infantino meet with members of volunteer associations in Krasnodar. (Reuters)

So this is awkward.

In a year, there will be a World Cup held in Russia. And any last lingering doubts that it will really happen – in spite of the optics, or the building delays – have dissipated as there isn’t any longer the time for someone else to step in. Which is to say that the nation – or federation, to be precise – that stands accused of meddling in a handful of foreign elections will host the world’s biggest sporting event, the ultimate PR boost.

It isn’t just last year’s U.S. election and the email hack of newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron that’s been blamed on the Russians. They are also thought to be behind misinformation campaigns surrounding the recent Dutch elections and the upcoming German one.

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As if all of that isn’t uncomfortable enough when the United States men’s national team presumably arrives in Russia (pending qualification), there is the fact that the way the 2018 World Cup was awarded to Russia – in the infamous double-vote in 2010 that also handed the 2022 edition to Qatar – was investigated by an American.

Michael J. Garcia, whose Garcia Report still hasn’t been made public, was appointed by FIFA to turn over stones. But he was obstructed in his fact-finding to the point where the laptops Russia had used for its bid process were allegedly destroyed before the former U.S. attorney could get to them.

Then, of course, there were the FBI and Department of Justice-led raids of FIFA in a smorgasbord of graft cases, which cleared out an entire generation of leadership. It’s the same leadership that made Russia a World Cup host. By inference and association, if not in fact, that taints this Russian World Cup. For lack of concrete information, the wide assumption is that its acquisition of this mega-event was, at the very least, unclean.

Russia’s World Cup also underscores the continued abdication of FIFA’s responsibility – as a major global political player, no matter how it labels itself – on international affairs that might muddy its revenue streams.

Weirdly, in the wake of the Qatar blockade, FIFA did acquiesce to the United Arab Emirates’ request that it appoint a different referee for its away game with Thailand, rather than the Qatari one initially assigned. But it has done nothing to sanction Russia, even though it recently invaded a neighbor in Ukraine and annexed part of its territory. Yet Colombia lost the 1986 World Cup because of political turmoil and budget issues – both of which have affected Russia – and Yugoslavia was kicked out of Euro ’92 because of ongoing warfare.

Russia also doesn’t seem compliant with FIFA’s rules about political interference in domestic soccer affairs, which is an absurd standard yet one nevertheless enforced. President Vladimir Putin and his cronies plainly have deep influence within the sport, yet they get away with that, too.

There have been calls for an American boycott of the Russian World Cup by U.S. Senators because of the Russian incursion into Ukraine. The Ukrainian president has called on allies to stay away from the World Cup as well. Others have called for a boycott as a means of calling attention to rampant racism in Russia, or its treatment of minorities – like the ongoing persecution of gays in Chechnya.

Historically, boycotts haven’t achieved much. And chances are the tournament will go ahead as usual, just with a strong undercurrent that will be mentioned in pre-game shows but largely forgotten from the starting to the final whistles.

Things will carry on, just as they do in unpopular Olympic Games. The proceedings will be scrubbed up to a spotless sheen. The opening and closing ceremonies will pretend that all is just peachy. And any risk of protests or other embarrassments will be carefully mitigated.

The whole thing might feel a bit like the 1978 World Cup in Argentina must have. That edition took place just two years after the military coup headed by Jorge Rafael Videla, whose junta terrorized Argentinians from 1976 through 1981 and leveraged the World Cup to gain some popularity with the population – and allegedly manipulated some aspects of the tournament to help the home team win it, although nothing was ever proven.

Politics, then, won’t disrupt this World Cup. They will be present, but also not. There are too many interests at stake, after all. Russia’s assertive new standing in the world, as a global meddler, will be acknowledged but probably not acted upon.

Because the World Cup must go on, apparently.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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