To Russia with love from Sepp and associates
An obliging political culture and lure of new markets wooed FIFA, says Paul Hayward
Published 05/12/2010 | 05:00
A beaming Russian delegate leaves a conference hall in Zurich with a framed certificate tucked under his arm. The document enshrines his country's right to stage the 2018 World Cup and it gleams under the hot lights.
A few feet away, Roman Abramovich is smiling adoringly at Vladimir Vladimirovich -- better known as Vladimir Putin -- who is shaking hands with his triumphant bid team.
"Those who don't take risks don't drink champagne. That is an old Russian saying," Putin had just told a room of international journalists, an hour or so after landing in Zurich after Russia beat off Spain-Portugal, Holland-Belgium, and England to secure 13 of the 22 votes in the second round. Arrayed before Putin in the first three rows as he spoke to reporters was world football's new aristocracy.
The Russians are no longer coming. They have arrived. As Putin's security detail assumed their hedgehog formation in FIFA's home town, the architects of Moscow's political victory swapped congratulatory comments: Igor Shuvalov, deputy prime minister, who stood in for Putin in the hours before the vote; Vitaly Mutko, minister for sport; Alexey Sorokin, the bid chief executive, and Abramovich, who, on this evidence, hero-worships Putin. Yelena Isinbayeva, the pole vault world record holder, added glamour.
Around this core of heavy-hitters sat hefty men, mostly greying or turning bald, in dark suits. These were the outriders for football's latest superpower. As they waited, a thick phalanx of photographers flashed away, unsettling the media-phobic Abramovich. Three times he rose and strode away as if having important business to attend to. Each time he merely found a shadow to stand in.
When a Swiss camera crew thrust a microphone toward him, Chelsea's owner fluttered his fingers to convey discomfort and angled his body away from the question. Only Putin, his master, could force Abramovich to endure this flashbulb hell, and for those used to seeing him march across the Stamford Bridge pitch with his minders it was salutary to observe him in such a subservient role.
In the press conference, I asked Putin what role he had in mind for Abramovich in the run-up to 2018 and the oligarch thrust himself forward on his chair to await the answer. "You know, Mr Abramovich worked on Chukotka [where he was governor] for several years and his work was not bad," Putin started out. "Many people say he is a tycoon and he bought Chelsea Football Club. It is taken positively and negatively in Russia but Mr Abramovich helps to develop football in Russia. He supports one of the clubs."
Putin then appealed to Abramovich to name the team but received only a smile. "No, he's not going to tell us because of internal procedures. He's very attentive to the development of Russian football and in general he will be preparing the World Cup. This work is called public-private partnership. With the construction of stadiums I have mentioned, the Spartak stadium will be constructed by the Lukoil company and another will be built with the support of the VTB bank.
"In other territories, we would like to attract the business community to minimise the state expenditure and I do not rule out the possibility that Mr Abramovich could participate in one of those projects."
With this, Abramovich began clapping and giggled his approval. Anxiety, maybe. Or delight at being asked. Or fear. His eagerness to please was palpable. The applause spread across the Russian benches. "He can give us money, he has a lot of money in stock," Putin went on, grinning now, and pointing at Chelsea's benefactor, who will not be saying no.
Memo from the Kremlin to business, and to oligarchs: you will pay for this World Cup. Socialism is alive in Russia, sort of, because the rich will foot the bill for the transformation of stadiums and perhaps the infrastructure too, as Putin finds ways to repatriate wealth from the billionaires of the Yeltsin era.
A week of football history-changing drama ended the way many thought months ago it would, with Russia persuading a majority of the FIFA executive committee that it would be in their interests to open a new frontier in the game. Sepp Blatter's organisation followed up that thrust into virgin lands by awarding the 2022 tournament to Qatar.
No eastern European country has ever hosted the World Cup. In nine attempts Russia, or the Soviet Union, have never finished higher than fourth (in 1966). The current side are ranked 13th in the world. Although Russian clubs (CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg) have won three European trophies in the past four years, Russian club football still trails the major leagues in western Europe.
The Russian national side failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup but reached the semi-finals at Euro 2008, where they lost 3-0 to Spain. Their two best-known goalscorers, Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, both play in north London with Arsenal and Spurs, and already pressure is mounting on the Russian federation to produce a new wave of talent to fend off embarrassment in 2018.
"Russia did a lot of last-minute lobbying and votes appeared to switch at the last minute -- we know some switched in the early hours of the morning," said England's bid chief executive, Andy Anson, adding to the intrigue. "We are not naive and we were up until 5.0am."
While it suited the England team to imply late Russian persuasiveness, there was a deeper sense that FIFA decided weeks or even months ago that eastern Europe should be conquered, especially with the huge rewards it opened up to Blatter's pseudo-Vatican.
The Russians -- Putin especially -- are accustomed to thinking in outcomes, not diplomatic froth, which is why the second most powerful statesman in the world could take to the stage claiming he knew nothing of the WikiLeaks furore which cast his government as collaborators with organised crime in a "mafia state".
Putin claimed the mission was "to enhance the borders of world football, to engage new territories and new countries. Millions of people in Russia love football but we never hosted any World Cups. When we formulated our bid, in our first steps we thought about this."
These are undeniable geo-political realities. Russia boasts that it is the world's largest country with the longest national border, 140 ethnic groups and more than 100 languages. It has 18 direct neighbours. The plan is to stage the World Cup in four venue clusters, covering 13 host cities, to reduce travelling times. Huge sums are set aside for transport upgrades.
Putin claimed his aim was "to show we are an open and transparent country to the world. They [fans] will see a lot of stereotypes from the previous times, but the more contact we have the more these stereotypes will be destroyed. The Olympics [Winter Games at Sochi in 2014] and the World Cup will promote the implementation of this task. Our country lives without visible and invisible Berlin walls."
Eight years after the first African World Cup, the 'FIFA family' will materialise in Krasnodar, Saransk, Samara, Yekaterinburg and Rostov-on-Don: cities most football fans will not have heard of. Naturally the main centres will be Moscow and St Petersburg, where Dick Advocaat, the former Zenit manager, confessed he was too scared to sign a black footballer in case the player was rejected and abused by the crowd. "As for racism and national intolerance, this is a worldwide problem," Putin said. "We will continue to combat it."
By degrees we see the World Cup taken away from the travelling fan in favour of commercial exploitation and major building projects. "The associated infrastructure will cost us 300 billion roubles -- $10bn," Putin said. "Now we are going through the difficult consequences of the financial crisis and many western European countries face problems. We also have many problems but our gold stocks are the third in the world -- $500bn. Our economy will continue to develop.
"The mass media is very critical. They like to criticise. Not only our mass media but the international mass media. They were very critical in the early stages of the Sochi Olympics. These are large-scale, complicated works. We have to construct 80 bridges, new roads in the mountains, electricity, water supply, gas supply, but the work is going on. I am sure they will follow very thoroughly how we will prepare for the World Cup in 2018."
Aware that too much public-private-partnership and infrastructure talk might fail to excite football's masses, Putin told a story that matched the rhetoric from other countries about their passion for the game: "I was born in Leningrad, and as you know during World War II it went through 900 days of blockade. It was bombed every day, no electricity, no running water and no heat. No heat in a Russian winter. But football matches were held even at that tragic time and it helped people stand tall and survive. Football brings a spark into the lives of people young and old."
This was a voice from the old Soviet Russia, the one that collapsed to allow Putin to rise to power from the ranks of the KGB, and Abramovich to become a billionaire. Now this union of post-communist power and appropriated wealth seeks to drag Russian football up from the middle tier to a level where Spain, Germany and England are.
"We have a lot of work ahead. We have to climb up many steps," Putin said. But first they had to win FIFA's vote -- and they made that look easy.