Amid the dying embers of 2015 there was a spark which spoke volumes about the nature of football and politics, which are always one and the same. And it all revolved around the fallout from the bids for World Cup 2018.
In Russia, as we know, all football clubs are political vehicles. They are backed by local cities/regions, or by politicians/businessmen, bar one exception.
Compared to the English model where they are debt-carrying punts by ambitious investors or rainy day vehicles for dubious “foreigners”, whether royal or otherwise.
The difference between the two is that the English clubs are better marketed and financed from television, tickets and sponsors.
If an owner disappears, there is usually another eejit to over while the club rattles buckets to get to the other side.
In Russia the club folds, enters a division or two down and goes again.
The over-riding and binding truth between both countries is that football is used as tool for politicians at a local and international level. David Cameron’s support of two teams wearing claret and blue pales, naturally, to Big Tone’s Newcastle fetish.
Apparently Maggie Thatcher had a soft spot for Milwall, though that soft spot was on Denis’ body.
In Russia VVP rolls, nominally, with Zenit, though the National Team is his focus. Bringing the World Cup 2018 to this country was something he came up with in a brain-storming session with advisors and the Fursenko’s in 2002, the day after Russia’s narrow loss to Japan.
It was suggested that if Russia were the home side, they’d have gotten the breaks. The seeds for World Cup 2018 had been sown.
One of the men present that morning had been involved with the old USSR Football Federation in 1983 and worked on the 1990 World Cup bid. The decision was down for 1984, when Cold War rhetoric was in full flow on both sides.
Hollywood contributed the still terrifying “The Day After”, Firefox, Red Dawn (original) and Gorky Park before the vote, with Red Scorpion, Rambo II and Rocky IV in the following years. The USSR was no different.
You’d not hear Sigue Sigue Sputnik on the radio, nor would you see Bosco, Playschool or anything that would rile up the kids.
Getting stitched up by their European brethren to keep the fine old competition in “safe hands” was not a surprise, but it was long remembered.
By the end of 2002 there was an outline project and Russia just needed to get the economy, politics and generally most other things in order. A tough ask as only at the turn of the millennium Russia had been gutted from within and without, with asset stripping, financial collapse and currency devaluation.
The new man, VVP, was looking long term. World Cup 2018 was targeted in the document and the bro-mancing began 2003.
Naturally natural resources would play a large role in garnering favours from voters. Gas, oil and coal deals meant governments being disposed to instruct their FA’s to lobby EXCO members when the time came.
Stepping onto the world stage as a balance to US hegemony, Russian companies splashed the cash to sponsor orphan events like the Universiade, Delphic Games and various loss-making and peripheral sports and cultural events.
Add in Gazprom’s romance of sports home and abroad, especially football – funding Zenit, sponsoring Schalke 04 and Red Star Belgrade – the biggy came when they secured the European vote.
Gazprom agreed to sponsor the UEFA Champions League, beginning in 2012, and partnering up with official FIFA tournaments (which began last year).
The “investment” into their role as a World power was rewarded with the right to host the Winter Olympics (in 2007) and just three years later World Cup 2018 came home as planned.
That a focused, long term strategy won out over three bids which each displayed various forms of embarrassing gaffes to downright criminality (from the English bribes to EXCO members and their wives, sidling up to Jack Warner and Spain-Portugal’s bung to EXCO members).
By 2010 the Dutch, Belgians, Spanish and Portuguese were all in financial turmoil, while England was still recovering from City of London mass corruption. Russia prevailed in a dirty contest, like all other bidding processes in sports, and the dastardly, elderly Swiss Blatter was rolling as his Brazilian, English and French predecessors had done.
We’ve seen the about face from the English FA, the witch hunting and triumphalism from its media, yet while their poisonous venom is sprayed outwards, the rotting beautiful game at home received scant attention.
Rather than address the continued destruction of clubs and the National Team, the media slobbered over an attractive female doctor and her row with an attractive and outspoken football manager – it was a Mexican telenovela that more closely resembled the long lost Eldorado.
Yet the magic that is Christmas and season of goodwill brought about something close to the World War I football match between the trenches.
Reps from the Russian FA and Government met with their English counterparts at a Hotel in France between the holidays to “break bread”, as I was told by a member of the Russian party.
It was to smooth over a number of issues, including this summer’s meeting in France, and also to talk about “that World Cup”. Two of the three hours were European Championship related and “almost an hour” purely on any bad blood remaining from the 2018 bid.
They parted after exchanging gifts and peace was declared. Football House in Taganka was assured that there would be no English boycott of the 2018 World Cup and the English assured that any future bid would receive Russian support.
Most importantly, the English guaranteed that they would not take part in a witch hunt against the World Cup 2018 bid, until after the event.
This will eventually receive a little notice in the media, though, since it’s positive and good news. When I mentioned it on the radio show a few days ago the responses were “And?”, “What did you expect?” and my favourite, from our host “By the next time England have a chance to host a World Cup, they could be fully Arab-owned, so they won’t need our money”,
It’s logical that there should be peace between the nations as both have more in common, especially in sports, than not. Russian football fans eagerly followed events in the EPL and La Liga while enduring diatribe about the dastardly West.
Threats of Islamic terrorism diverted those who normally go to upmarket hotels in Turkey and Egypt to down market hotels in the Emirates. The most outspoken, anti-Western Russian politicians skied in Courchevel, sunned themselves in Miami and sipped warm beer in their London pads while visiting their kids who work/study there.
Both countries have professional football Premier Leagues which work against the National interests, and in both there is a long history of doped athletes that receive firm denial at home.
So while Seb Coe and his buddies are shown to have helped out their Russian (and other) pals to keep their sport “clean”, World Cup 2018 is finally assured of its place in Russia, for now.