Ewan MacKenna: Russians running opponents into the ground at the World Cup and the whispers are growing louder
Day one, and there was a rush to the Ramadan files to try make some sense of it all.
Russia 5 Saudi Arabia 0.
But the visitors weren't out on their feet for religious reasons as - partly due to being based in St Petersburg where there are 18 hours of daylight at this time of year - they'd applied for and received state permission for postponement of their duties. Instead they were outdone by the host's energy and effort as the team collective of 118 kilometres is the most in any match thus far. What we ended up with was instead a small statement via the biggest opening-game margin ever.
Then came whispers...
Day six, and there was a rush back to the Ramadan files to make some sense of it all.
Russia 3 Egypt 1.
The visitors were bludgeoned into submission in 15 ruthless minutes involving sheer spirit and stamina. This made more sense though as, despite nutritional expertise being brought on board by the Africans, they couldn't stop the natural effects of starvation as their football association said they were determined to last the month. It didn't help that the hosts covered 115 kilometres this time, second only to themselves in the list, with three of their players now in the individual top 10 for distance covered.
Then came more whispers...
Before this tournament began, there were plenty of jokes doing the rounds about Russia coming good via physicality as opposed to skill, but few believed it would happen so openly. The problem now though is that many are using the wrong evidence to get to what may or may not be the right outcome. Unfortunately a theme of suspicion around a visual test and one stand-alone statistic leaves an easy out, via so many obvious answers that deflect far away from where this conversation needs to be.
In essence it plays completely into the case for the Russian defence.
For instance it's true other nations have suddenly looked good, and other players have blown our minds, and where is their scrutiny under the same criteria, and doesn't that stink of yet more western hypocrisy? It's true Russia have played two poor teams. It's true home advantage counts. It's true that a harder opponent will show them up in time. It's true that their run into this competition with one win in 10 games isn't a fair reflection due to the standard of those that they faced. It's true that any pro can jog about and do 15 kilometres in a game, but explosivity is more telling.
And still based on all that, for some across this opening week the fun part has been trying to find the best euphemisms without libeling a group that have had no positive tests. For others, the hard part has been trying to talk about those whispers without breaching a line.
How little they all know.
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Russia's manager Stanislav Cherchesov was holding back the fury.
At Tuesday's press conference, clearly expecting the usual puff piece from many that show up as fans at a World Cup while wearing media badges, suddenly some did their jobs. They dropped the dreaded d-word but while he balked, he'd no right too. As recently as three years ago his was a nation engaged in state-sponsored doping and, according to all evidence available, football was a major part of that. So what else did and does he expect? Live by the sword and all that.
If you are into this aspect of sport, the chances are you'll have heard of Grigory Rodchenkov. The former head of the Russian anti-doping agency, he appears wearing a balaclava during statements from behind the wall of United States witness protection, ever since he blew the whistle on the country's true colours and how they went about winning. That's not an excessive precaution on his part either when you consider that in the months before he went public with the story in 2015, two former colleagues, Nikita Kamaev and Vyacheslav Sinev, mysteriously dropped dead.
Vladimir Putin in the early part of this decade clearly realised the soft power that sport could give. With the world trying to push him further into the cold, this would be his chance to scramble to centre stage and, not only that, but to control the narrative while there. On top of that it would show his people that they needed his strong-man efforts and actually winning was a big part of that.
We now know that before his 2014 Winter Olympics, a state-sponsored doping regime existed in those sports, but what few care to mention is that it was in far more than those sports. In fact what Grigory Rodchenkov has since told the excellent German station AFP is that then Minister for Sport and still Deputy Prime Minister and president of the Russian Football Union, Vitaly Mutko, came to him with a warning that went: “We don't give positives in football”.
It is interesting to note that in 2014, they were the only country at that Brazilian World Cup with their entire squad based domestically, giving them complete control to do whatever they wanted. (This time it is also worth noting that all bar one of their squad play in the Russian leagues.) The sort of control that saw Rodchenkov produce an email from before that tournament where he was asked if the list of players were “healthy”. This, he says, was their code-word to avoid trouble.
By the end of 2014, the Moscow lab he ran had been shown up as dirty, but don't think that meant they stopped. Nor did their football. By the summer of 2015, Yevgeny Blochin of the Russian political police, the FSB, showed up and according to excerpts from the doctor's own diary brought with him “magicians”, performed “four tricks” and at the end of his scribblings he added, “Thank God everything went well”. This was the clearest and most obvious example of state interference in football sample tampering and sample swapping, the exact same as around Sochi.
However according to Rodchenkov they couldn't have acted alone in a football sense. One of those “four tricks” saw the swapping of the urine vile after a positive test of sample number 3878295. It emerged this week that it belonged to Ruslan Kambalov, the Rubin Kazan defender who was in the squad for this World Cup but was pulled late, officially due to injury. The substance he took, the corticosteroid Dexamethasone, is legal away from games and that was predictably his defence as he said it was taken three weeks prior to his positive test in training. This doesn't make sense. Doctors in an accredited lab in Cologne have said the drug starts to leave the system within the space of a day, yet his sample showed he was at 15-to-20 times a level that was suspicious. Ultimately they suggested that his results and excuse “don't match” in their experience.
You might not believe him but, with this knowledge so easily available, the troubling problem here is football's authorities did. Either that or they chose to make it go away. Long before his name emerged, UEFA said that the player “bore no fault” because the substance was from an injection “earlier in the season”. Meanwhile Rodchenkov admitted that Kambalov was classified as “a doping case, Fifa knows that”. The obvious question then is why they did nothing about it? In this realm that becomes rhetorical.
Considering the Kambalov case and the actions of the various stakeholders, it makes you consider what else was going on. For instance at the end of 2014 when Wada were worried about the Moscow lab, they confiscated other samples, with 155 football players believed to be on their lists. Some of those it is claimed are playing for Russia right now and Fifa have said that's because re-tests led to "insufficient evidence... FIFA has informed Wada of its conclusions, and Wada in turn has agreed with Fifa’s decision to close the cases”.
But look at this another way for when there's this many accusations being flung about based on what we know for sure, the only way to quiet talk is complete transparency. Speaking just last year former Wada chief Dick Pound reiterated as much when saying, “It is incumbent on them [Fifa] to say what steps they are taking, what they find, and take whatever action necessary to protect the integrity of sport. There has been an institutional denial of doping in football for years… I’ve seen too many presentations by Fifa, straight out of fantasy land, about how they don’t have a problem. They absolutely have to take this case seriously.”
So what have they done to protect the integrity of the sport and to show their audience and their customers and their stakeholders they are taking guardianship of the game seriously? When AFP recently contacted them for clarity around what retests were done on the samples, they said that was a Wada issue. So AFP contacted Wada who said it was a Fifa issue. Confusion was key and remember these are two organisations that cannot ever get their stories straight. As an example, back in 2015 during all this, when investigations delved into doping numbers in football, Fifa said there were 78 cases that year, but Wada thought it was 149.
A year on and some were delving deeper, or at least trying to. Former Fifa medical chief Professor Jiri Dvorak was investigating the McClaren Report and had written to the Russian FA looking for their lab reports when, to quote the Guardian report of the time, "his work was abruptly terminated under the presidency of Gianni Infantino”. It leaves worries far beyond the Russian actions and, with tests at this World Cup being kept well out of Russian hands, does that inspire you with any more confidence?
As always with such big sport though, there are strong political overtures and, while they may further complicate what is already complicated, they cannot be ignored. Indeed just last week investigative journalist Ken Bensinger released his book 'Red Card' about Fifa's fall from grace. In one passage, the aforementioned Vitaly Mutko - who in recent days was dining out with Sepp Blatter despite the latter's lifetime ban from all football activities - is talking about the FBI's attempts to extradite then Fifa vice-president Eugenio Figueredo with his attorney David Torres-Siegrist.
Speaking in thickly accented English, Mutko told Torres-Siegrist that he was familiar with the Figueredo case and was eager to help. “As you can see,” the minister said, “we've spent billions of dollars on infrastructure for the World Cup.”
“It would be highly undesirable,” he added, for the US to blemish Fifa and, by extension, Russia's World Cup.”
The meeting lasted twenty minutes, during which time Mutko talked generally abut the case, but also mentioned specific strategies that could be used to beat the American extradition request. Some things, he said, Torres-Siegrist would be informed about and take an active role in; others would be, by necessity, done without his knowledge.
“All available resources will be given to this," Mutko assured him before saying goodbye.
In essence, Russia was willing to throw state strength in the way of US attempts to avoid Fifa's corruption being shown up.
It was in the midst of all this that, for all their reluctance to tackle Russian doping, the IOC couldn't stand up under the weight of evidence. Last year, despite his close friendship with Putin, Thomas Bach described their actions as an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport”, chucked them out of the Olympics, and banned Mutko for life. Yet within an hour of that ruling, Fifa announced that it had “no impact on the preparations for the 2018 World Cup as we continue to work to deliver the best possible event”. Mutko remained on as president of his football association and head of the organising committee.
Where the IOC had wilted, Fifa carried on relentlessly. Sources have said that's because had they followed the IOC lead they'd have had to throw Russia from their own World Cup and, given the politics, people and ramifications involved, that was never going to happen.
It reminds that where Russia quite literally took the piss before, figuratively they are far from alone in doing it this time.