FIFA's Putin problem

By Paul Kennedy

How is it that the latest issue of GQ ranks FIFA president Sepp Blatter as No. 3 on its top 10 list of sleaziest sports personalities -- behind only former Clippers owner Donald Sterling and former Patriots tight end and murder suspect Aaron Hernandez -- yet Blatter is poised for reelection?

UEFA president Michel Platini has passed on challenging the 78-year-old Blatter for FIFA president next year, leaving protest candidate Jerome Champagne, a former aide, as the only challenger. But it should come as no surprise, though, that no one else is ready to challenge Blatter.

Who would want his job?

The big item on Blatter's agenda in September was supposed to be FIFA prosecutor Michael Garcia's report on his investigation into corruption charges surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. But it turns out to be the least of Blatter's worries.

FIFA's No. 1 problem is Blatter's old buddy, Russian President Vladimir Putin. When we last saw them together -- at least in public -- it was at the World Cup final at the Maracana Stadium, where they sat next to each other. That was four days before Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine and before the situation there degenerated.

FIFA's problem is like none other it has faced in modern times. Simply put, no one knows what will happen next, more specifically what Putin will do and what increased sanctions will be imposed against Russia.

As early as March, U.S. senators Dan Coates and Mark Kirk wrote to FIFA, asking that it strip Russia of its 2018 hosting rights. More recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron called for FIFA to pull the plug on Russia 2018. Not that Cameron has much more sway than the two Republicans at FIFA House.

A senior European diplomat told the Daily Telegraph that the idea of taking the World Cup away from Russia has come up in talks between European leaders, but it remains -- for now -- a longshot. About as far-fetched, frankly, as the idea of FIFA pulling the 2022 World Cup from Qatar.

The problem for FIFA is, the clock is ticking, and some decisions have to be taken -- like right away. The original plans were for the 2018 World Cup to be played at 12 venues in 11 cities, but the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has made FIFA think twice about the wisdom of organizing a tournament in so many cities in a country the size of Russia.

Blatter met with Putin at a previously unannounced meeting two weeks ago in Sochi and proposed that the 2018 World Cup be cut back from 11 cities to nine -- Volgograd in southern Russia and Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains have been targeted for cuts -- but Russia organizers will have nothing of it. Vitaly Mutko -- Russia's sports minister and its representative on FIFA's executive committee -- said plans for 12 stadiums in 11 cities aren't changing.

On the face of it, FIFA's executive committee could go ahead and make the cuts at its next meeting Sept. 25-26 in Zurich, giving Russian organizers the face-saving gesture of being able to say to the cities that are dropped, "Look, it wasn't our idea."

In normal circumstances, that scenario might work. After all, the Russian plan for 12 stadiums makes no sense. But Putin is in no mood, it seems, right now to be seen being pushed around by anyone.

Already, other issues have created headaches for FIFA. Official sponsor McDonald's has not yet renewed for 2018 and would it want to, given the recent turn of events in Russia? McDonald's restaurants, including the flagship McDonald's on Moscow's Pushkin Square, have been shut out in apparent retaliation for U.S.-led sanctions. A deputy in the Russian Duma has even called for an inspection of the financial affairs of the Ronald McDonald House. If the Russians are going after Ronald McDonald, you know there's a problem.

The long-term issue for Blatter and FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, the point person on organizational matters, is what impact the Ukrainian crisis will have on the Russian economy and how much more will foreign investment drop in Russia, where the Putin government set the cost of the 2018 World Cup at $20.9 billion -- and that was before the ruble tanked.

Stadium construction is the least of FIFA's worries as Russia's infrastructure program includes work on 113 training sites, 62 hotels and 11 airports, not to mention local transportation projects.

If this sounds like a movie FIFA has seen before with Brazil 2014, you now get the idea how Russia 2018 has Blatter and Valcke scared silly.

Worth reading ...

You only have had to follow the opening two weekends of the college season -- or Friday night's MLS game in Kansas City -- to understand what Robert Jay Lifton was talking about in his recent column in the New York Times on "The Climate Swerve" -- the change in consciousness about how Americans view climate change. Through the years, there have always been some early-season college games interrupted by bad weather, but nothing like the intensity or length of the disruptions in all parts of the country.

Soccer is now so big that ...

The 2014 World Cup is being blamed in part for the huge decline in summer ticket sales at movie theaters: down 15 percent from 2013, according to Rentrak. Other factors: online streaming, delayed releases and, simply, a spate of bad movies.
12 comments about "FIFA's Putin problem".
  1. ROBERT BOND, September 2, 2014 at 9:20 a.m.

    crazy to go to russia....

  2. Allan Lindh, September 2, 2014 at 12:05 p.m.

    The solution is obvious, and it kills three birds with one stone. Forget FIFA, and the 2018 WC is the perfect opportunity. Schedule an alternative World Cup, hold it in Europe, let Platini and UEFA organize it. UEFA can start the ball rolling by withdrawing from FIFA, the US, Canada, Aussies and the Kiwis will quickly join in, that's the bulk of the advertising base. South America and Africa will take a while, but if they want to go to Russia without the rest of us, and without the advertising money, that's their problem. FIFA is too corrupt and incompetent to reform, let's just be rid of them. After all, us nutso soccer fans actually fund the operation, when we buy all that crap the advertisers sell. We can help by telling the FIFA advertising base that we will boycott their products, starting now, if they don't pull their advertising from FIFA. Soccer America can hold a contest to name the new "World Football Alliance," of whatever we decide to call it. It's time people, lets just do it.

  3. Andrea Hana, September 2, 2014 at 12:09 p.m.

    First McD's, then who? Wait until ABInBev pulls the plug on them. THEN what will FIFA do? They better think fast.

  4. Allan Lindh, September 2, 2014 at 12:14 p.m.

    The list of FIFA advertisers is at:

    Looks like the places to start are, Coca-cola, McDonalds, and Budwiser. Get those three on board an effort to bypass FIFA, and the FIFA empire will crumble.

  5. beautiful game, September 2, 2014 at 2:37 p.m.

    FIFA is a spineless organization, and under Blatter, a typical (political) organization that is steered by money without an ounce of morality. The EU should abandon WC 2018 unless it's moved to a different venue. It should abandon WC 2022 and stop promoting labor slavery in Qatar. FIFA needs to be re-invented and re-organized. The current stable of Blatter and his minions has proven to be a disaster.

  6. James Madison, September 2, 2014 at 3:12 p.m.

    Russia is only the second of three crises that would be easy to deal with if logic prevailed, but which FIFA undoubtedly will mess up. The first is grass for the WWCup in 2015. The second is Russia. If NATO were serious about supporting the Ukraine, UEFA would push Blatter to take the Cup away from Russia. The third is Qatar. Labor slavery is the least of it. Qatar harbors the leaders of ISIS (or ASIS), which should be enough to DQ it from hosting the Cup.
    P.S. Much as I love soccer, it was the poor quality of the supposed blockbusters that killed movie attendance this summer.

  7. Bruce Moorhead, September 2, 2014 at 6:27 p.m.

    Please Paul, don't succumb to the man-made global warming hoax. There have been "climate disruptions" for millions of years, with no impact from mankind. I certainly don't care what the crazy liberals at the NY Times say about "climate change" and you shouldn't either. Time to start studying climate science in depth, as I have, and reject the imaginary problem of "global warming". The world has real problems to address. Ever heard of ISIS?

  8. Michael Borga, September 3, 2014 at 8:27 a.m.

    Really?? You are using a psychiatrist's article about a shift in the opinion polls regarding global warming to explain why we have storms, ludicrous, at best!

    Robert Jay Lifton is a psychiatrist and the author of “Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima,” and a memoir, “Witness to an Extreme Century.”

  9. Allan Lindh, September 3, 2014 at 1:16 p.m.

    Gee Bruce, exactly where did you study climate science? On the internet I bet. I thought soccer fans were too intelligent to be bought off by the denier crowd. I suppose you believe in UFOs also.

  10. Jack Torok, September 3, 2014 at 2:08 p.m.

    Truth is that money always talks the loudest. If we as the Soccer consumers make it known to McDonalds, Coca Cola, Budweiser, Adidas, Sony and the other major Sponsors of the World Cup that we will not purchase their products should they proceed to support WC 2018, then you will see change. FIFA relies on those dollars and the Western World still has most of the purchasing power.

  11. Bruce Moorhead, September 4, 2014 at 3:33 a.m.

    Allan - who bought me? Where is your proof? Typical silly comment from the hoaxer crowd, talking about money, economics, religion, etc. because you don't have a scientific leg to stand on. As the world cools in the next 20 years, the ludicrousness of the hoaxer position will be even clearer. Ever heard of Climategate? Look it up. I would have hoped soccer fans were too intelligent to be hoodwinked by the hoaxer crowd.

  12. Mike in SoCal, September 4, 2014 at 5:15 p.m.

    Blatter is much worse than Sterling...

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