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
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
, 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
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
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
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
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 ...
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