Accusations cloud Russia’s 2012 campaign

by Domm Norris

There are many problems within Russian society that require addressing – from the prominence of the black market to the questionable actions of the nation’s most powerful political figures. In a country where question marks are regularly raised in regards to how it deals with its own domestic issues it therefore comes as little surprise that such problems have come to fore in the nation’s footballing culture. You need only look as far as Rubin Kazan’s growing domestic success in the Russian Premier League to see  many a raised eyebrow – as questions have been asked as to whether the club was simply pulling in favours they had acquired through throwing games in previous seasons. But although Russia’s domestic game is not as transparent as you would hope it appears as though they are also intent on acquiring such a reputation in international football.

Group B of the Euro 2012 qualifiers is an extremely tight affair. Russia top the group with a two point gap over the Republic of Ireland, Armenia and Slovakia – who all have 7 points after 4 games played. The nature of the group creates obvious tensions – a poor result can pile huge amounts of pressure upon teams desperate for their chance to reach the tournament in Poland and the Ukraine. You would imagine that the obvious means of guaranteeing qualification would come through strong performances on the pitch – but in Russia’s case football matches can be won and lost through the flashing of a cheque book and pen.

Armenia’s national newspaper Zhamanak has reported that Russian figures have offered the Armenian football association a significant amount of money to lose when the teams meet on March 26th 2011. While the reports are as of yet unsubstantiated it would not come as surprise to see Russia attempt to use its financial might to influence the actions of others – as history has taught us to remain cautious over the state of Russian football. If the reports prove water tight and the Russian authorities have attempted to buy 3 points in a UEFA organised tournament then the consequences of such actions will be hugely interesting to witness.

The importance of Russia’s participation in EURO 2012 cannot be under estimated. The World Cup in 2018 now lingers over the future of the nation’s game and it is because of this that Russia is desperate to assert itself on the international scene. There are concerns that the international footballing community does not yet recognise Russia as a strong force – and one that can compete against the very best teams in the world. The EURO 2008 tournament saw a Russian team – under the guidance of Guus Hiddink – with a burgeoning squad of players perform in such a manner that showed they were a side to be reckoned with. However it proved to be one step forward and two back as Russia failed to build on this success by not qualifying for the World Cup in South Africa. There is a hope – and growing expectation – that the World Cup on home turf is a realistic opportunity for Russia to become one of world football’s elite nations – as the scenario of Russia lifting the famous golden trophy becomes a realised dream. If World Cup success is to become a reality then it is thought that Russia must first establish a burgeoning reputation for itself in the tournaments leading up to the fateful day when Moscow plays host to the first World Cup match on Russian soil. Accompany this with the fact that EURO 2012 is being held in Eastern Europe – Russia feel as though it is their right to represent this region of Europe at the tournament.

The pursuit of success is obviously a long, arduous journey – but patience is not a famed Russian trait. The news of the possibility of Armenia throwing an international match of such stature is a significant issue and will most likely raise questions from media outlets as to whether it was through such means that the nation won the right to host the World Cup. UEFA are now left in a difficult position in terms of how to deal with the situation. If the speculation from Armenian news outlets proves to hold substantiated evidence then UEFA must investigate and take action against the guilty parties – with the possibility of Russia being docked points being an obvious punishment.

However, punishment against Russia could create a particularly tricky position for both UEFA and FIFA – who have supported the Russian World Cup bid amid the questionable political and economic history of the nation. Imagine the uproar within the likes of England and Spain – fellow World Cup 2018 bidding nations – if Russia were founding guilty of bribing another nation with genuine hopes of qualifying for an international tournament – questions will undoubtedly be raised as to how far Russia’s money has spread within the game. Has it reached Sepp Blatter’s pockets? Michel Platini’s? Obviously Europe’s footballing authorities could quite easily sweep the issue under the carpet and claim that it was merely speculation without any firm evidence – but this could quite simply only serve to increase speculation and feed the flames of suspicion.

The match between Armenia and Russia will make for an interesting watch. A controversial goal or a mistimed tackle could lead to an onslaught of questions and concerned looks and should Russian comprehensively beat their opponents then the situation will become even more intense. However until the match comes to fruition little action will be taken from the footballing authorities who remain entirely reactionary organisations – lacking the foresight to act before problems escalate out of control.