In March, with 100 days to go until the World Cup, all of the tournament’s social channels published a short video. The clip features a who’s who of former international soccer stars, including Wayne Rooney on an English training pitch, the original Ronaldo on a beach in Brazil, and Diego Maradona in what appears to be his kitchen, all juggling a ball.
It’s all fun—until the video takes a sinister turn at the end. The final juggler isn’t a world-renowned ex-pro. It’s Russian President Vladimir Putin, juggling in the Kremlin with FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Although Putin’s foot skills are questionable, the visual language of the video is clear: The international soccer community supports Putin and his regime.
“I don’t know if juggling with Wayne Rooney gets you polling points across England, but it certainly gets you polling points across Russia,” said Graham Brookie, the director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab at the Atlantic Council think tank and a former staffer on Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
This political boost is why Putin wanted to bring the World Cup to Russia in the first place. For Putin, hosting events like the World Cup and the Sochi Olympics four years ago are calculated acts that force the international community to interact with Russia as if it were a normal actor despite all of its belligerence on the world stage and its authoritarian repression at home. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has bombed civilians in Syria and supported that country’s brutal President Bashar al-Assad, backed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, illegally seized Crimea, and interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Meanwhile within Russia, Putin’s government curtails free speech, rigs elections, and denies the LGBT community basic human rights.
“[The World Cup] is being used to launder the regime’s reputation in the eyes of the world,” said James Kirchick, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Russia is causing a lot of problems, and this is part of a strategy to airbrush their image.”
The responsibility for placing fans in the difficult situation of bolstering Putin’s regime while watching the World Cup falls on FIFA. World soccer’s governing body has not only looked past Russia’s foreign aggression and domestic repression but has also silenced internal critics of Russia’s growing influence inside the organization.
Even more troubling, important questions have been raised about the integrity of the 2018 World Cup after it was revealed that Russia employed a state-sponsored doping system to cheat at the Sochi Olympics. Critics maintain that FIFA’s response to doping concerns has been slow at best and negligent at worst, sparking fears that Russia will try to game the World Cup.
“Russians cheat. They like cheating. There’s extensive evidence that cheating is fair game in a whole variety of different ways whether it be bribery or blackmail or doping or any of these other means,” said Molly McKew, a foreign policy analyst who has served as an adviser to the former Soviet republics Georgia and Moldova. “And I don’t think there’s any reason to believe they will not try to skew outcomes in the World Cup.”
As the World Cup kicks off this week, it will look like many World Cups of the past. Flags will be waved, faces will be painted, the grass will be green, and the ball will be round, but there’s nothing normal about a World Cup in Russia.
In one of the stranger twists of modern political scandal, there’s a reclusive figure at the center of both the Department of Justice’s investigation of FIFA corruption and the alleged “pee tape” said to feature Donald Trump and Russian prostitutes in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton: ex-British spy Christopher Steele. Years before Steele’s Trump-Russia dossier became the worst-kept political secret in Washington, D.C., Steele was hired to investigate allegations of corruption in Russia’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. In 2010, he passed his findings to the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime unit, and a few years later, that led to FIFA officials being rounded up by Swiss police at the Baur au Lac Hotel in Switzerland.
In response to those arrests on corruption charges in 2015, Putin became FIFA’s biggest champion, defending the organization and attacking the United States. “This is yet another blatant attempt [by the United States] to extend its jurisdiction to other states,” he said. When the investigation later came after FIFA president Sepp Blatter, Putin went even further in his support of FIFA’s leadership, arguing that the disgraced Blatter deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
In return, FIFA has been a useful partner for Putin in his quest to reestablish Russia’s sporting influence around the world — one piece of his larger quest to reassert Russian power globally. “FIFA, the IOC, these are famously corrupt organizations, and Russia flourishes in corrupt organizations,” said McKew. “They encourage them and they make them worse.”
As an incisive report from ESPN’s Outside the Lines made clear last week, FIFA has sought to silence internal critics who have raised questions about the growing Russian influence inside the organization in order to avoid angering Putin. The story of Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko is especially revealing. As Putin’s right-hand man for sports, Mutko ran Russia’s soccer federation, served on FIFA’s executive committee, led the charge to organize the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and was personally implicated as a leading planner of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program.
In the dead of night during the Sochi Olympics, Mutko directed Grigory Rodchenkov — the former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency later turned whistleblower — to pass dirty urine through a hole in a wall with the help of Russia’s security services, the FSB, an organization that Putin ran before becoming Russia’s president. FSB agents would then pass clean urine samples back to Rodchenkov. This subterfuge allowed dirty Russian athletes to evade doping detection and win 13 medals during the competition. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency report on Russian doping at Sochi, the effort included more than 1,000 athletes from 30 sports. While allegations of doping centered on Russia’s Olympic teams, the report found that 34 Russian soccer players also had possible ties to doping.
After the publication of the WADA report, FIFA president Infantino promised to quickly investigate the allegations ahead of the World Cup, but as ESPN reports, the organization waited nine months to contact the author of the report. Questions have also been raised about FIFA’s efforts to contact Rodchenkov, raising suspicions that FIFA was trying to slow-walk the investigation or even conceal Russian doping. In late May — 22 months after vowing to investigate — FIFA concluded its inquiry, saying that there was not enough evidence to implicate any of Russia’s soccer players in the doping program.
In response to questions from The Ringer, FIFA shared a three-page fact sheet defending the rigor of its investigation into the Russian doping allegations. The organization also vowed that the 2018 World Cup would be a clean tournament for athletes. FIFA said that it plans to send all athlete urine samples obtained during the tournament to World Anti-Doping Agency laboratories outside of Russia for analysis, and said that no Russians will be employed in the testing of samples.
A recent report from the German television network ARD, however, reveals new doubts about how thorough the testing of Russian soccer players has been, including a new allegation from Rodchenkov that Mutko told him to ensure that no Russian soccer players — including some on Russia’s World Cup team — tested positive for doping back in 2014. “I received order from Mutko that we don’t need positives in football,” Rodchenkov told ARD. “He was my boss and I followed his order.” According to ARD’s report, also at issue is whether or not FIFA rigorously tested 155 Russian soccer player urine samples for evidence of doping.
“Here we are on the eve of the World Cup, and there are serious questions about the involvement of the Russian state system,” said Travis Tygart of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. “It’s a very unsettling situation.”
Inside FIFA, Mutko’s shadowy role has also been the subject of internal debate and dissent. According to the ESPN report, Portuguese lawyer Miguel Maduro, then the head of FIFA’s independent governance and review committee, refused to support Mutko’s bid to remain on the organization’s executive committee. Last May, Maduro was fired, which he says was based on FIFA’s desire to avoid upsetting Putin and the Kremlin. At the same time, FIFA also ousted Cornel Borbély, the organization’s head of ethics, who was in the middle of an investigation into Mutko’s ties to Russia’s doping program.
Under increased pressure after the International Olympic Committee gave Mutko a lifetime ban from Olympic activities and banned Russia from competing in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Mutko has recently stepped down from his roles in both FIFA and in Russian soccer. (He continues to serve as a deputy prime minister.) In a statement at the time of his resignation from Russia’s World Cup organizing committee in December, FIFA praised Mutko “for his invaluable contribution to the preparations” for the tournament. To this day, Mutko and the rest of the Russian state continue to deny that they operated a state-sponsored doping system in Sochi.
“The evidence is crystal clear of what they did back in Sochi,” said Tygart. “Until they’ve acknowledged it and are committed to changing it, the questions will remain.”
Although Putin and his regime have so far managed to avoid any significant consequences from FIFA for their history of cheating, the Russian president still has one major problem: The Russian soccer team is bad. Ranked 70th in the world, they are the lowest-ranked team in the World Cup, and getting knocked out in the group stage would be an embarrassment for Putin and the nation. The weakness of the team has led some to speculate that Russia will do what they’ve done before at international sporting events: They will cheat.
Already, Russia’s group stage draw has raised eyebrows. According to FiveThirtyEight, Russia were drawn into the easiest group in modern World Cup history going back to 1986. As the host country, Russia was always going to have an easy group since it was seeded with the world’s best teams, but landing the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in their group over countries like Denmark and Nigeria was a major coup.
“I think we should absolutely assume that the softball Russian draw for the first round of play was not a random, non-data-driven choice,” said McKew.
Beyond the lingering questions about the involvement of Russian soccer players in the state’s doping program, one story from whistleblower Rodchenkov should also give teams visiting Russia pause. In December, Rodchenkov revealed that he had been asked to give a Ukrainian athlete competing in the biathlon a false positive result during a competition leading up to the Sochi Olympics. Rodchenkov refused, saying he would never disqualify a clean athlete, but the story is troubling to those who have witnessed Russia’s evasive responses to questions about its doping program.
“We don’t operate on conspiracy theories, but these are legitimate questions based on some evidence that athletes have had,” said Tygart. “And given that, it’s the responsibility of the sports organization to ensure that those facts are addressed adequately and athletes are given the comfort they need not to have to worry about their safety and security.”
FIFA, however, remains committed to hosting this World Cup in Russia without ruffling any of Putin’s feathers, and the world appears ready to attend, too. British Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed that her country would not send any ministers or diplomats to the tournament — a protest in response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil with a nerve agent in March — but so far only Iceland has taken the same hard line. The thinnest silver lining of the U.S. failure to qualify for the World Cup is that no one from the Trump administration will be obligated to attend and raise further questions about the administration’s ties to Russia. One international icon, however, loudly accepted Putin’s invitation: former FIFA president Blatter.
With the World Cup set to kick off on Thursday, in many ways Putin and his regime have already won. With a major assist from FIFA, Putin will use the tournament to bolster his domestic approval rating in Russia and whitewash his country’s image abroad. And even if the Russian team stumbles, Putin’s larger quest to reassert Russian power globally will carry on unchecked.
“While we’re watching games in June, he’ll be supporting Assad militarily by dropping ordinance on civilians, and he’ll still be funneling support across the border to separatists in Ukraine, and he’ll still be trying to manipulate people in any number of countries to take on pro-Kremlin views or just to sow chaos within democracy,” said Brookie. “So while we’re looking at a big shiny show on TV, all of that behavior is still going to be full steam ahead.”
Andrew Helms is a writer in New York.