Russia Sees U.S. Conspiracy Against World Cup Plans in FIFA Scandal
Sweeping corruption probes in the U.S. and Switzerland have cast a shadow over Vladimir Putin’s plans to host the international soccer championships in 2018
Russian officials were quick to claim Wednesday that a U.S. conspiracy is behind the corruption scandal that shook the world of international soccer. Early that morning, police in Switzerland complied with a U.S. request to arrest nine senior officials at FIFA, the sport’s governing body, as part of a far-reaching probe into decades of alleged bribe-taking and backroom deals.
But why, the Russians asked, would a nation as indifferent to soccer as the U.S. pursue a corruption probe at the heart of the game? Even more suspect to many in Moscow was the timing of the dragnet in Zurich: The next FIFA World Cup tournament is due to be held in Russia in 2018, and President Vladimir Putin has been overseeing the preparations personally.
“So there are clearly forces in America that are trying to turn anything positive that we have into a new channel of confrontation,” Kirill Kabanov, who monitors corruption in Russia as a member of the Kremlin’s council on civil society, told TIME on Wednesday. “And even if there was bribery going on [at FIFA], why would the Americans only bring it up now, just after FIFA refused the demands of [U.S.] Senators to revoke Russia’s right to host the champions?”
His question referred to an appeal that 13 U.S. Senators sent last month to the President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, asking him to move the 2018 World Cup to another country. After Putin decided last spring to invade and annex Ukraine’s Crimea region, “allowing Russia to host the FIFA World Cup inappropriately bolsters the prestige of the Putin regime at a time when it should be condemned,” the Senators wrote in the letter, which was dated April 1.
Less than three weeks later, Blatter met with Putin in the Russian resort city of Sochi and issued an apparent rebuttal to the appeals from Capitol Hill. “If politicians are not too happy that we are taking the World Cup to Russia, I always say to them, ‘Well, you can stay home, and in Russia we will hold the biggest world cup ever,’” the FIFA chief told Putin on April 20, according to a transcript on the Kremlin website.
Putin responded with a promise that day: “We will at the very least achieve one objective and will organize this big event in Russia,” he said. But the President had no comment on the unfolding firestorm in Switzerland on Wednesday. “This is not our issue,” the Kremlin said through a spokesman. And indeed, no Russian citizens were among the 14 people indicted by the Eastern District of New York, including two FIFA vice-presidents.
The acting U.S. Attorney in the case, however, made clear that the probe was far from over: “This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation,” Kelly Currie told reporters in New York. (I bet there are a lot of people who are losing sleep just waiting for the next shoe to drop.)
Time will tell!