An American political triumph featuring Donald Trump working quietly behind the scenes, with Canada and Mexico as allies, taking place on Russian soil and with the backing of Vladimir Putin? These are strange times indeed.
Such a victory took place Wednesday, as the United Bid, a three-pronged campaign led by the United States and also featuring its neighbors, won the right to host soccer’s 2026 FIFA World Cup.
Russia, whose soccer federation has close ties to Putin’s regime, was one of the nations that voted in favor as the United Bid saw off its only challenger Morocco. All of which means the U.S. and Russia are sharing a political plot line that for once doesn’t include accusations of misdeeds.
Well, at least on the American side.
The 2018 World Cup kicks off here on Thursday, beginning a five-week celebration filled with elite competition on the field and concern for intolerance in the stands and streets.
While no one knows who will emerge victorious on July 16, whether superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar will finally win soccer’s ultimate prize, one thing can be taken to the bank: Russia, the world's top-ranked antagonist, has turned on the charm, all the way from Putin down.
“We’ve done everything to ensure our guests, sportsmen, experts and of course fans, feel at home in Russia,” Putin said in the video, even threatening for a moment to break into a smile.
Putin has no great love for soccer but he understands the value of international sporting events as exercises in propaganda. Putin approved the checks as Russia spent $50 billion to stage the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, saw them top the medal table thanks to state-sponsored doping, then sent his troops in to annex the Crimea from Ukraine three days after the Olympic flame was extinguished.
While catching heat internationally for alleged interference in elections in the U.S. and elsewhere, his support of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad and for the alleged poisoning of a former spy on British soil, Putin’s regime has been putting the finishing touches to a tournament that cost another $11 billion.
Tuesday brought the first overt case of political muscle being wielded. Forty-eight hours before the World Cup’s opening game, Ramzan Kadyrov – the controversial leader of Chechnya installed by Putin a decade ago – turned up at Egypt’s training session for a photo with Mohamed Salah, one of the top players in the tournament.
Amnesty International called the move by Kadyrov, whose Chechen regime has a brutal human rights record, a case of clear “sports-washing.”
Most of the FIFA members who voted for Russia to stage this World Cup when the election was held in 2010 have subsequently been found culpable of corruption, yet despite calls for the removal of the tournament – which intensified again when the Russian team was banned from this year's Winter Olympics over its doping scandal – here it is, poised to begin.
Even Putin’s fiercest critics think the tournament will go off with barely a hitch, not because Russia has fixed its problems but because its leader is hardline enough to quell resistance by whatever means necessary.
“We must stand united against forces of tyranny, not undermine global sanctions against Russia by providing them with a windfall of tourism, likely to only benefit Putin’s rich oligarch friends,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said last week while she and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., introduced a “bipartisan resolution condemning Russia during (the) World Cup.”
Russia still enforces a law banning “gay propaganda” which has been interpreted as an attack on the LGBT community. Supporters of the statute claim it protects the minds of children from corruption but it has been denounced by human rights groups.
“LGBT fans traveling to Russia face potential harassment from locals over public displays of affection,” Jonathon Keymer, a travel risk expert who monitors Russia for iJet International, said. “There is not widespread tolerance.”
The intolerance extends to racism. Russia’s soccer authorities were sanctioned after black players from France were targeted with racist chanting during a game between the teams in St. Petersburg in March.
Soccer players drawn to the lucrative Russian Premier League have been targeted – Brazilians Hulk and Roberto Carlos, and the Republic of Congo’s Christopher Samba were all on the receiving end of high-profile abuse. Cameroon’s Andre Bikey told the Daily Telegraph that when he played in Moscow in 2007 he carried a gun for his safety.
However, the World Cup anti-racism inspector, former Russian national team player Alexei Smertin, said he believes there will be no racist incidents over the next month.
“In Russia people know what hospitality and respect are,” said Smertin, who prompted ridicule in 2015 when he claimed there was “no racism in Russia.”
Furthermore, Russia has become one of the primary centers for soccer hooliganism. Russian supporters were involved in bloody skirmishes with rival fans, including an infamous incident with English followers, at the 2016 European Championships in France. Several Russian politicians voiced their support for the thugs for defending Russia’s honor.
However, the Kremlin has little appetite for seeing such scenes on Russia soil over the coming weeks, and spectators are required to carry "FAN-ID" documentation in an effort to keep soccer gangs away. Putin has also drafted his ferocious Cossack militia enforcers to patrol Moscow in a bid to avoid unrest.
Whether the show of force is designed to scare or reassure fans is unsure, but American visitors are here in large numbers, along with soccerphiles from around the globe. FIFA confirmed that as of Tuesday the U.S. has the highest number of tournament ticket sales (nearly 90,000) of any country apart from Russia.
Stephen Gallagher, 43, who traveled to Moscow from his home in Los Angeles on Tuesday, said he was undeterred by Russia’s reputation.
“There are always reasons not to come but I wasn’t going to let what’s in the news stop me,” Gallagher said. “I am not here to support Putin, I am supporting soccer.”