Before Sunday’s World Cup final, FIFA President Gianni Infantino engaged in the sort of host-country backslapping that is routine at international sporting events. “For a couple of years, I was saying it would be the best World Cup ever. Today I can say that with more conviction,” he said at a press conference.
This, for once, was not merely public relations drivel. The tournament, if not everything around it, really was the most entertaining World Cup in a generation. Russia’s run to the quarterfinals, the limey jubilance of “It’s Coming Home,” Mexico and South Korea sending Germany out early, the 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé turning into Pelé right before our eyes ― it was all outstanding to watch, and by most accounts outstanding to attend as well. It culminated in a six-goal final that crowned France as champion.
But just a few minutes into that final, football fans the world glimpsed a stark reminder of how ugly the World Cup can be off the field. A television camera showed Russian President Vladimir Putin and Infantino smiling and laughing together in a VIP box high above the field at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Here was the man whose country had bought the World Cup through bribes and the man whose obscenely corrupt organization had been all too willing to sell it to the highest, dirtiest bidder.
The essence of the World Cup lay somewhere between the two images. The incorruptibly beautiful soccer on the pitch, unmarked even by France’s reputation for negative football, playing out beneath the corrupt and corrupting men who otherwise run the show.
Infantino and Putin had good reason to share a triumphant moment. Both entered this World Cup with a single goal: to bolster their legitimacy ― politically, socially and globally. They were using our collective interest in the world’s most popular sport and the obscenely talented men who play it to cover up their autocratic self-dealing, and with so little shame.
There is little doubt now that the Russians bought hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup with under-the-table payments to members of FIFA’s executive committee, several members of which were arrested in Zurich and indicted in the United States three summers ago. Despite tips from British spy Christopher Steele (of Donald Trump dossier fame) that Russia engaged in corruption to win the World Cup hosting rights, the U.S. Department of Justice indictments largely failed to touch Russia, in no small part because the Russian bid committee destroyed its computers immediately after the vote was held in 2010.
But in the months before this World Cup, and especially once it began, the international media paid hardly any attention to the dirty stuff underlying it all; we spent little time scrutinizing the $11 billion Putin and Russia spent to put on the tournament.
This was not an accident. If the World Cup looks like a political masterstroke from Putin and Infantino, it’s because the Russian leader was never going to let it end any other way and FIFA was always going to go along with whatever sort of authoritarian measures Putin wielded to ensure his beautiful spectacle.
Russian dissidents, whistleblowers and critics of Putin’s government have a curious habit of turning up dead, as Boris Nemtsov, who spoke out about corruption tied to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, did in 2015. Journalists and other critics of those Olympics were imprisoned or exiled, and in the years before the tournament, Putin’s Russia enacted further crackdowns on dissent and press freedoms. That has made it “more difficult to report the news” and placed journalists “under extraordinary pressure to avoid investigating Putin,” Josh Fine, a senior producer at HBO’s “Real Sports,” told SportsBusiness Daily after his show aired a segment on Putin’s targeting of journalists and political dissenters in June.
“There are still some brave Russian reporters who cover these matters but the numbers dwindle every year,” Fine said. “Relatedly: the government appears to have prophylactically locked up some reporters ahead of the World Cup so as to ensure they won’t decide to do this kind of reporting during the event.”
There’s little reason to believe that FIFA is any cleaner today than it was the day Swiss police raided that hotel in Zurich.
Russia denied visas to foreign reporters who had chronicled Russia’s World Cup corruption, and with few journalists able or willing to scrutinize his dealings locally, there was hardly anyone equipped to challenge the image of Putin’s rosy World Cup the way the domestic and international press did in Brazil just four years ago.
The country’s improbable run to the quarterfinal in the tournament provided Putin with yet another blessing. Russia’s victory over Spain in the round of 16 thrilled even his loudest political critics, and it had the effect of depoliticizing a deeply political event even further. (Contrast that, for instance, with the way Brazil’s shattering semifinal loss in 2014 only highlighted the nauseating nature of that spectacle.)
Only Pussy Riot, the anti-Putin punk band and political resistance group, had the gall to interrupt the party, when four of its members invaded the pitch in the second half of Sunday’s final. It was a brief disruption that “created, on one of the biggest stages in the world, an image of unjust and arbitrary authority, the sort with which a hundred and forty-five million Russians live day to day,” The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen wrote. But it has hardly seemed to puncture the overall perception of the World Cup as a joyous, unifying success.
When Russia won the right to host this World Cup, Jérôme Valcke — then FIFA’s secretary general, who later resigned amid corruption charges — declared the vote “the end of FIFA,” thanks to the overtly corrupt nature of it all. But eight years later, FIFA and Infantino were ready to party. They, too, needed a win.
FIFA, we have learned since the previous World Cup, was a pioneer in the field of organized sports corruption. That bribery and graft had greased the wheels of global soccer for decades was the world’s worst-kept secret, but the DOJ’s indictments cost FIFA numerous corporate sponsorships and loads of money. FIFA needed a glorious World Cup, if for nothing else than to repair its image just enough to bring those sponsors and their money back into the fold.
There’s little reason to believe that FIFA is any cleaner today than it was the day Swiss police raided that hotel in Zurich, and Infantino, who took over shortly after President Sepp Blatter resigned in disgrace in 2015, has built his presidency on the same sort of patronage that underlies so much corruption anyway.
But the football was beautiful, and the stadiums were too, and God, a World Cup finally went off without a hitch, and so for all the anger directed at FIFA over the last three years, Infantino faced not a single question about corruption or the status of his beleaguered organization at the prefinals press conference. (The Ghanaian Football Association, you may not have heard, was shuttered just a week before the World Cup began, after several of its executives were caught taking bribes. Nothing to see here.)
On Monday, Putin won a hearty congrats on the tournament’s success from Trump during a joint press conference in Helsinki, and Putin responded by handing his buddy a commemorative World Cup ball. It was almost poignant, the two men — one of whom had followed up the last international sporting event he hosted by interfering in an election just months later and the other the corrupt wannabe authoritarian who now occupies the White House after winning an election tainted by Russian manipulation — celebrating together. How Putin will spend the domestic political capital the World Cup helped him build is unknown, but he’ll surely spend it somewhere.
“The last time Russia did well in a global sporting event, Putin, riding high, invaded Ukraine — twice,” Julia Ioffe wrote in The Washington Post after Russia’s upset victory over Spain in the round of 16. “Let’s hope that this time, he does something more benign, or just lets his country celebrate for the sake of it. But if you’re hoping for that ... don’t hold your breath.”
International sporting events, meanwhile, have terrible human rights records even when they’re not held in the country of a murderous dictator presiding over what Human Rights Watch called “the worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era,” so it seems worth heeding the concerns of LGBT activists and other political dissidents who fear that the lax-by-Russian-standards attitude toward them from Putin and the police during this monthlong party won’t last either.
As for FIFA, it’s only going to get worse. The 2022 World Cup is in Qatar, where the most direct price of FIFA’s corrupt practices could be as many as 4,000 dead construction workers. Despite what you may have read in USA Today, the worst part of the Qatari World Cup won’t be the oppressive heat or the lack of beer, because Qatar is also ruled by a repressive regime, which utilizes a labor system that international human rights groups have equated to modern-day slavery. The Qataris have made some incremental changes, but only the next four years and beyond will tell us whether that progress is real or if Qatar is merely papering over its problems to please the world for a month or so. Either way, at least several hundred foreign workers who went to build World Cup stadiums are probably already dead.
Qatar has not been shy about its efforts to use soccer to cover for its atrocities. The petrostate last year spent gobs of money to help one of the clubs it owns, Paris Saint-Germain, buy the star Brazilian forward Neymar from Barcelona, one of the clubs it used to sponsor. The weird scheme to pull together enough money to send the ever-marketable superstar to Paris involves making him an official ambassador for the Qatari World Cup.
And don’t expect those corporate sponsors that ran away from FIFA amid the corruption charges to stay out of bed with this band of grifters now. Fox set viewership records for a tournament that didn’t even include the U.S. men’s national team, and on the day before the 2018 World Cup began, FIFA voted to hand the 2026 version of the tournament to a joint bid from the United States, Mexico and Canada. That’s a big stack of cash in one of soccer’s few underdeveloped, superwealthy markets. The united bid estimated that it would generate $11 billion in revenue for FIFA and an untold amount for its sponsors — more than enough to remind at least several of our corporate overlords that they’ve never had any morals anyway.
It’s horrific stuff all around, and yet it’s never felt more pointless to challenge it. Russia’s World Cup was always going to end this way, with Putin and Infantino celebrating that they made us all for marks again. Four years from now, in a stadium built by slaves, the episode will repeat itself.
It was nice to believe, for a few hours each day, that the World Cup offered a bit of respite from the perils of the world around it.
That cool goals ― look at that Ben Pavard volley! ― and fingertip saves and riveting, last-second results could provide us with even momentary bits of happiness.
That, even when it was a bit political, France’s and Belgium’s and Switzerland’s teams were made up of the children of immigrants and Mexico’s popularity north of its border could serve as a rebuke to the ugly xenophobia plaguing Europe and the United States.
That soccer could show us that good things are possible in hopelessly corrupted contexts.
But then there were Putin and Infantino, grinning like chimps, reminding us that even the good stuff in the world exists chiefly for the pleasure of crooks.