Putin's Russia is not so much hosting the World Cup as kidnapping it
While a Russian father and his daughter lay close to death in an English hospital last week, Vladimir Putin could be seen online juggling a football as part of a PR exercise for the 2018 World Cup.
Sergei Skripal, a former spy, and his daughter Yulia, collapsed last Sunday in a public park in Salisbury, Wiltshire. On Tuesday, it became international news. They had been poisoned by a highly toxic chemical that can destroy the nervous system, causing the heart and lungs to stop functioning.
A consensus is hardening that this was another homicidal operation carried out on foreign soil by operatives working on behalf of the Kremlin. A senior British police officer said it was "being treated as a major incident involving attempted murder by administration of a nerve agent."
Also on Tuesday, Fifa released a promotional video to mark the 100-day countdown to the tournament kick-off: Russia v Saudi Arabia on June 14 in Moscow. It is a montage of famous footballers playing keepy-uppy, culminating with the president of the Russian Federation and the president of Fifa, Gianni Infantino, trying to do the same in one of Putin's palatial rooms.
The real public relations coup, of course, is the World Cup itself. One of the many downsides of the grotesque decision to award the 2022 event to Qatar is that it helped camouflage the stench surrounding the 2018 shakedown. In comparison to the Qatar scandal, Russia almost looked like a respectable choice. While the Qatar stitch-up generated global condemnation, Fifa's malfeasance elsewhere was overlooked.
In December 2010, the supreme governing body of the global game had awarded the most prestigious event in world sport, not just to an obscure desert kingdom, but also to a major power with a dangerous appetite for state terrorism, rampaging corruption and hostile international manoeuvres. If Fifa had even a scintilla of sincerity regarding its ethical obligations, it would have steered well clear of Russia too.
As far back as 2001 the Putin regime stood accused of crimes against humanity when a mass grave, many of the bodies mutilated, was discovered in Chechnya. Amongst many other casualties of the vicious war in that region was the great journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead outside her apartment block in October 2006. It was widely seen as retribution for her investigative work on human rights abuses in Chechnya and her repeated criticisms of the president. In terms of a free media, the international organisation Human Rights Watch currently maintains that "Russia is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era."
In July 2007, the International Olympic Committee awarded Moscow the 2014 Winter Games. Four days after Putin attended the beautifully choreographed closing ceremony in Sochi, Russian troops invaded the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. The subsequent conflict in eastern Ukraine has caused at least 10,000 military and civilian deaths, including the 298 people on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, shot down by a Russian-made missile in July 2014.
At Sochi the great leader demonstrated again the wider truth, that a ruthless politician who claims to love sport is not unlike a pimp who claims to love women. It is merely a vessel to be used and abused for personal gain.
Russia had performed poorly at the Vancouver Games in 2010. Naturally, our hero wanted plenty of home medals to burnish the personal lap of honour that would be Sochi 2014. By then the plans were well under way for a mass campaign of state-sponsored cheating.
In May 2016 the World Anti-Doping Agency appointed a Canadian law professor, Richard McLaren, to investigate a quite sensational raft of allegations levelled by Dr Grigory Rodchenkov, the former director of the Moscow Laboratory. (Rodchenkov's remarkable tale was told in the film Icarus, which won an Oscar for best documentary feature last Sunday.) The international furore forced the IAAF to blanket-ban Russian athletes from the Rio Olympics.
McLaren's second report was published in December 2016. He concluded that "an institutional conspiracy existed across summer and winter sports athletes who participated with Russian officials within the Ministry of Sport and its infrastructure . . . for the purposes of manipulating doping controls."
This "infrastructure" included RUSADA (the Russian anti-doping agency), the Moscow Laboratory (the national anti-doping lab), the CSP (Centre of Sports Preparation of National Teams of Russia) and the FSB (formerly the KGB). McLaren reported that the conspiracy began in 2011, in preparation for the London Olympics, and continued from there. Over 1,000 elite athletes, including Paralympians, were involved.
Having dabbled in steroids for decades, the athletes by 2012 were availing of more sophisticated drugs, and benefiting from elaborate escape systems, all designed at enormous cost in time and money by the state machine.
Meanwhile, Putin had been moving seamlessly from the posts of president to prime minister and back again, without anybody apparently noticing the difference. Dissidents within the country and observers from outside have repeatedly accused him and his political party of widespread electoral fraud.
The regime has fomented anti-gay sentiment by passing a series of laws which were found by the European Court of Human Rights last year to "reinforce stigma and encourage homophobia". Hate crimes against members of the LGBT community have escalated.
All of this while also, allegedly, organising a vast clandestine operation to sabotage nothing less than the 2016 US presidential election.
Then suddenly, mysteriously, two Russian natives collapse from poisoning in a provincial English town. These are not stable times; the world is unnerved; no one feels particularly safe anymore. Putin's gangster government is contributing grievously to the malaise.
There is an overwhelming sense that they are not so much hosting the World Cup, as kidnapping it. So, if there's a silver lining in Ireland's failure to qualify for Russia 2018, it's that our team and supporters will not be partaking in this transparently cynical imperial circus. In an ideal universe, nobody else would be partaking in it either.
Sunday Indo Sport