Staunton, January 30 – Up to Now, Moscow has insisted that there is no chance it will be stripped of the right to host the 2018 World Cup despite increasing calls for athletic groups abroad that this be done because of Russia’s state-organized doping program and despite indications that Russian venues may not be ready for such a competition.
But today, an article in “Nezavisimaya gazeta” by two experts on Russian sports and sports policies suggests that the Russian powers that be may be taking the threat of the loss of the competition seriously and have decided to suggest that the loss of the World Cup would not be that big a deal for Russia (ng.ru/world/2017-01-30/3_6915_kartblansh.html).
In a classic example of the principle that if you are given lemons, make lemonade, Vladimir Kumachev of the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research and Sergey Kazenov of IMEMO say that taking the games away would not have the effect some calling for that expect because, in their version of reality, Russians don’t really care that much about soccer.
Thus, they argue, “the football weapon” of taking the games away from Russia “won’t work.” It won’t even matter very much to anyone from Vladimir Putin on down. Given how big a deal the Kremlin leader made of the Sochi Olympiad and what he has said about the 2018 World Cup, that is hard to believe. At the very least, it reflects a significant shift in opinion.
In the telling of Kumachev and Kazenov, people in Russia “undoubtedly love football” but not to the degree that many in other countries do or that many in other countries assume is the case with Russians. Russia is too far north and too cold for many to want to sit in the stands and freeze as they watch.
That might have been overcome, they say, if Russia had the funds to build covered stadiums but it doesn’t and hasn’t, not only “for economic reasons but also because [Russian] football fans are not in the same league as hockey or basketball ones.” Indeed, the two experts continue, hockey is attracting fewer fans in Russia now than it did, just as in other countries.
Nonetheless, there is a widespread notion that Russian leaders want the competition to satisfy “their power ambitions and to obtain political dividends.” Kumachev and Kazenov say that “Putin undoubtedly is a sincere supporter of sports and is involved in them, but he is known above all for his interest in martial arts and hockey,” not soccer.
Consequently, it wouldn’t be the end of the world for him if Russia lost the right to hold the World Cup competition. Indeed, he might even benefit because many Russians are upset about the spending on venues and because without the cup, there would be fewer stories about the doping scandal.
Consequently, the two Moscow experts say, those who want to influence Putin should come up with something “more creative” than taking the World Cup away from Russia. It simply won’t have the impact that they expect.
On the one hand, this may be nothing more than an effort to reduce the number of calls for taking the games away from Russia by suggesting that such a move would not produce any significant changes. But on the other, it is a clearer indication than any other that Moscow now thinks it could lose the competition, something it had now acknowledged up to now.