Thursday 26 April 2018

FIFA happy to let pariahs of sport take world stage

FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Photo: Getty Images
FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Photo: Getty Images

Oliver Brown in Moscow

Football has long since slipped from any ethical moorings. At present, it is lurching like a runaway raft down the murkiest waters of the Volga.

A snapshot of today's World Cup draw at the Kremlin, where the shadow of malfeasance hangs so heavily that Fifa has had to clarify the occasion will not be rigged with heated balls, reminds us as much.

It will, of course, be lavish, a glittering homage to Mother Russia on a stage formerly graced by James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti. And it will, given its setting at the epicentre of government, be geared to the glorification of Vladimir Putin, who, where sport is concerned, would far rather be at his Black Sea dacha watching ice hockey.

This week's tugging of the forelock to Russia and its charms is enough to make us believe that the last two years never happened.

The country that has effectively become a pariah for every sport with half a scruple, having perpetrated the most egregious state-sponsored doping scheme since the East Germans treated testosterone as an industrial enterprise, is somehow deemed fit to host football's greatest show of all.

It is barely a year since the International Olympic Committee declared: "We will not organise or give patronage to any sports event or meeting in Russia."

But football? It simply covers it ears and hums something stirring by Stravinsky.

When the IOC - the organisation that brought you such great hits as the Salt Lake City vote-buying scandal, or the recent raids on the home of Rio 2016 chief Carlos Nuzman on corruption charges - issues this kind of stinging rebuke, it is fair to say a line in the sand is drawn.

Except football washes over that line just as surely as the incoming tide.

Every major event held in Russia since 2013, from the Athletics World Championships in Moscow to the Sochi Winter Olympics, has been contaminated by the chicanery of national politics. And yet this afternoon football's worthies will gather for a celebration of Putin and all his works.

What is more, the game does not even want to know about the sordid underbelly it might find in Russia. Fatma Samoura, whom president Gianni Infantino appointed as Fifa's first female general secretary, in the forlorn hope of giving his diseased organisation a patina of credibility, says that they have not even bothered to contact whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov.

Apparently, the former head of Moscow's anti-doping laboratory, the man who has risked his life by exposing Russia's practice of exchanging dirty urine samples for clean ones through a hole in the wall, is of no interest to Fifa at all. Doping in Russian football was "not widespread", Samoura told the BBC.

Quite how she could be so confident, in light of Russia's continued non-compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency's Code, was anybody's guess.

Wada investigators have openly suggested that positive tests by Russian footballers were covered up, and that a system was in place to protect any players involved in the country's World Cup squad in 2014, but Fifa washes its hands.

This is a tournament untethered not merely from most moral standards but from basic curiosity.

It helps that Russia has an army of paid-up propagandists to project an alternate reality.

Take Stan Collymore, who since signing with Russia Today - a network designed, in the words of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, to "promote Putin's fantasy about what is playing out on the ground" - has portrayed this vast land as one of milk and honey.

Here is his verdict on the recent advance of Syria (main ally: Russia) to a World Cup play-off: "This is what football means to Syria and Syrians right now. Pure emotion."

No mention, predictably, of suspicions that the Syrian team has long been used as an easy vehicle for legitimising the Assad tyranny.

"I'm a sports broadcaster," he says, proudly. "You'll get honesty, the truth and an accurate reflection."

Naturally, Stan. That must be why you portray all that happens in Russia with the breathless excitement of a man describing the Sputnik launch.

Earlier this year, Collymore's idea of scientific research into Zenit St Petersburg fans was to post a picture of himself with three smiling young men waving club colours, captioned: "Couldn't be more open or anti-racist."

This would be the same Zenit whose fans decided, during last week's Europa League game against Vardar Skopje, to unveil a 10-yard-long banner honouring Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic.

A fine, upstanding bunch, clearly.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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