The saying goes: don’t mix politics and sport. That is exactly what the United States’ authorities seem to be doing over this week’s dramatic arrests of World Cup officials and allegations of rampant fraud amounting to $150 million.
The ostensible American concern is to clean up the tarnished image of the «beautiful game» in a global sting operation, which saw the arrest of seven senior members belonging to FIFA – the international federation that organises the quadrennial soccer World Cup finals.
But the real goal of the full-frontal assault on FIFA, which involved dawn raids at a five-star hotel in Swiss city Zurich, seems more to do with American political purpose to damage Russia’s World Cup plans. That objective has to be seen in the context of Washington’s aim to isolate and destabilise Moscow in an ongoing geopolitical battle that is currently centred on Ukraine.
Russia is to host the world’s biggest sporting tournament in 2018. The event carries huge prestige for the host country giving an enviable spotlight for millions of television viewers around the world to showcase modern infrastructure and national prowess. There is also the inestimable «soft power» that comes with consolidating friendly international relations by welcoming football teams and fans from over 30 nations. Russia already availed of such benefits in its successful hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which Western leaders sought then to spoil by boycotting that event over unconvincing human rights concerns.
Russia’s World Cup plans appear to be now similarly targeted for an ulterior political agenda. Within hours of the US-launched arrests of FIFA officials in Zurich, the football federation was obliged to state that the forthcoming World Cup in Russia was not in jeopardy of cancellation over related claims of wrongdoing in the selection of that venue.
Russian officials also moved to quash any suggestions that the 2018 finals would be disrupted by the ongoing US-led probe into alleged FIFA fraud.
«I see no threat to Russia or any problems», said Vitaly Mutko, the Russian sports minister, according to a New York Times report.
Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich alluded to the political dimensions of the American investigation, referring to the FIFA arrests as «another case of illegal extraterritorial application of US laws», adding: «We hope this will in no way be used to tarnish the international football organisation in general and its decisions». The latter point is no doubt a reference to FIFA’s selection of Russia as the host nation for the 2018 tournament.
Suspicions that there is much more to the US investigation into FIFA affairs are aroused by the unmistakable sense of political orchestration behind the high-profile move by American law enforcement officials this week.
Accompanying Western media glare across all the major news channels, as well as well-honed soundbites, pointed to a politically engineered «story».
Even the Washington Post, among other Western outlets, remarked on the «colourful details» disclosed by US officials in bringing dozens of indictments against FIFA figures, ranging from bribery, tax evasion, money-laundering and racketeering. The crackdown, carried out with the collaboration of Swiss police, was conducted in the style of a sting operation more often seen being deployed against organised crime syndicates. The melodrama had the air of a politically driven media campaign for maximum publicity.
While FIFA executives were being bundled into Swiss police cars, their heads covered under white hotel bedsheets, the highest ranking US law enforcement authorities were coordinating across the Atlantic in a full-court press conference.
«The beautiful game was hijacked», said FBI director James Comey in emotive tones about a sport not usually associated with high-level American interest. The FBI chief added: «The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world. Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA».
Richard Weber, the criminal investigation chief at the US Internal Revenue Service, described the alleged wrongdoings at Swiss-based FIFA as the «World Cup of fraud» and added «we are showing FIFA the red card». The Washington Post, reporting on the press conference, made the telling comment on how «officials seem to vie for the best soundbite».
Also speaking at the high-profile US press conference was attorney general Loretta Lynch. She lambasted FIFA over «rampant, systemic and deep-rooted corruption». Lynch said: «They [FIFA] were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest. Instead they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and enrich themselves». She also tugged on public heart-strings by claiming that FIFA embezzlement had deprived millions of children in poor countries of sporting facilities.
A report in Britain’s Guardian newspaper said of the «dramatic, unprecedented» American probe that it «represents a political decision that an international sport that has captivated a generation of US players should no longer be seen as above the law».
The Guardian gets it half-right. It certainly smacks of a political decision, but the real motive, naively misplaced by the Guardian, has little to do with American authorities stamping out corruption in sporting finances.
In a more realistic admission of the bigger geopolitical picture in regard to the FIFA scandal, the New York Times noted that «the United States and its European allies have sought to isolate Russia with sanctions after its annexation [sic] of Crimea in 2014 and the conflict in southeast Ukraine. The World Cup has taken on added significance for Russians intent on projecting their international standing», added the New York Times with perhaps an unintended acknowledgement of the ulterior political agenda at work.
Another indication of the political origins of the latest crackdown on FIFA is that the US legal case relies on evidence provided by former American soccer executive Chuck Blazer. Blazer was facing a long prison sentence in the US for alleged tax evasion before he turned FBI informer in a plea bargain. It is information purportedly gleaned from Blazer that has reportedly propelled the US-led arrests of the FIFA executives this week.
Allegations of corruption and commercial fixing have dogged FIFA officials for many years, from at least since the early 1990s, including allegations against the federation’s five-time elected president, Swiss national 79-year-old Sepp Blatter. There have been suspicions that FIFA’s selection of South Africa as the 2010 World Cup host was marred by bribery involving $10 million. Similar allegations have been made over the 2018 finals in Russia and the proceeding tournament in 2022 to be held in the Persian Gulf gas-rich sheikhdom of Qatar. One source of such allegations against Russia and Qatar is the London Times, a long-time purveyor of Western disinformation.
Whatever the truth about the corruption allegations at FIFA, it seems plausible that the sudden and strenuous criminal probe launched by the US authorities is intended to undermine Russia’s World Cup ambitions and, by extension, the Russian government’s global standing. US officials warned this week that their investigation into FIFA is «just the beginning» and that it will continue until it gets to the bottom of corruption claims. That suggests the convenient setting up of a long campaign that will further discredit FIFA and its associated World Cup spectacle – with Russia, as the next venue for the event, likely to be embroiled in the US-intended climate of scandal and smear.
Earlier this year, the US-backed Kiev regime that took over Ukraine in an illegal coup in February 2014, called for an international boycott of the World Cup in Russia. That notion floated by Kiev President Petro Poroshenko seemed at the time like another ludicrous announcement from the Western-backed regime in its hysterical claims against Russia. Now it appears the idea has gained the full backing of Washington under the guise of a contrived, high-profile corruption probe against FIFA.
It might also be noted that the undeclared Western hybrid war against Russia in Ukraine is running out of steam, with the political objective of sanctioning and destabilising Moscow failing. In particular long-running US allegations of Russian state subversion in eastern Ukraine are increasingly becoming threadbare and lacking in credibility.
A report this week from Reuters was headlined with the breathless words: ‘Exclusive: Russia masses heavy firepower on border with Ukraine – witness’.
The Western news agency, which has been caught previously fabricating anti-Russian claims over the downed Malaysian civilian airliner last July, reported thus: «Russia’s army is massing troops and hundreds of pieces of weaponry including mobile rocket launchers, tanks and artillery at a makeshift base near the border with Ukraine, a Reuters reporter saw this week».
Such disinformation impact the Western public over alleged Russian malevolence in Ukraine is by now suffering from a diminishing «overdose» response. To be blunt, US claims of Russian aggression and expansionism are sounding increasingly hollow and hackneyed.
US secretary of state John Kerry’s «respectful» attendance at a World War Two memorial in Russia’s Sochi earlier this month, along with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, may have suggested that Washington was paring back its covert aggression toward Moscow in a tacit admission of failure on that front.
However, having not been able to gain much traction from hybrid war against Russian interests in Ukraine, it appears that Washington is shifting tactical gears in its regime-change objectives against Vladimir Putin’s government. Spoiling Russia’s World Cup plans will endeavour to hit Moscow with heavy economic costs, as well as to undermine the country’s global reputation.
But the US-instigated corruption probe at FIFA is, in footballing terms, more like a shabby dive by the Americans with the real aim being to penalise Russia. It’s a risky tactic that may well backfire on Team America.
It’s also a sign of how low Washington will stoop when it is using «a beautiful game» much loved by millions of people the world over in order to score its ugly political objectives against Russia.
The views of individual contributors do not necessarily represent those of the Strategic Culture Foundation.