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John Helmer, Moscow

Russia survived the threat of a homosexual boycott of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games, handily. But can it survive the threatened boycott of the 2018 World Cup from a wannabe candidate to lead a minority party in the House of Commons; a British prince whose chance of becoming king is, failing accidents, at least 20 years off; and four US senators, one of whom has been indicted for taking bribes himself. The answer is yes – Russia will survive even this; and also what President Vladimir Putin has called a case of the US “illegally persecuting people”.

For the moment, though, no Russian owner of an international football team is willing to go public with a defence of Russia’s World Cup. Nor are they willing to endorse Putin’s claim that the US corruption charges against officials of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) are a political plot for “ulterior purposes”. Against Russia, Putin means.

The criminal indictments announced on May 27 by US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch are focused for the most part on US evidence of US citizens conducting corrupt business on US territory. The Department of Justice release, detailing the 14 indictments and five guilty pleas and convictions, carries the qualifier: “The charges in the indictment are merely allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”

There is no reference in Lynch’s press conference, or in the Justice Department’s resume of the prosecution’s case, to the award of the World Cup to Russia, and no hint of a claim against Russians.

Lynch’s statement focuses on corruption in the marketing of broadcast, brand-name and other rights. “FIFA and the regional bodies under its umbrella make money, in part, by selling commercial rights to their soccer tournaments to sports marketing companies, often through multi-year contracts covering multiple editions of the tournaments. The sports marketing companies, in turn, sell those rights downstream to TV and radio broadcast networks, major corporate sponsors and other entities for significant sums of money.” The accused names, according to Lynch, “used their positions of trust within their respective organizations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments. They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.”

Also, the Attorney-General explicitly charged corruption in the award in 2004 of the World Cup for 2010 to South Africa, defeating Morocco; the 2011 FIFA presidential election, which Joseph (Sepp) Blatter won; sponsorship of the Brazilian national soccer team by a US sportswear company; and the Copa America, a US tournament scheduled for 2016. For details of the indictments and the preceding convictions, read the official document carefully. For those who want to study the territorial, jurisdictional, and US law claims in the case for a racketeering conspiracy, and compare the geography of the prosecutors’ evidence between the US and offshore, here is the 161-page indictment. Russia does not appear.

In winning the 2018 tournament, Russia defeated bids from England, and the combinations of Spain with Portugal, and the Netherlands with Belgium. In the competition for the 2022 tournament, also announced with the Russian award on December 2, 2010, Qatar defeated the US, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. The US had originally opened its bidding for the 2018 tournament, then withdrew to concentrate on 2022. The US hosted its first World Cup in 1994.

Blatter claimed in his press conference last Friday: “No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa. It doesn’t smell right. The Americans were the candidates for the World Cup of 2022 and they lost. The English were the candidates for 2018 and they lost, so it was really the English media and the American movement.”

BlatterBlatter’s (left) daughter Corinne (right) toned down the charge. There is a conspiracy, she told the BBC on Sunday: “I wouldn’t say from the Americans and the British, but certainly people working behind the scenes, yes absolutely. I don’t know if you want to call them dark forces but I mean they really tried hard, they tried in September, October last year.”

There has been no US Government call for an investigation of the Russia award, nor in favour of a boycott of the 2018 Russian tournament. One US call for boycott came last week from Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Senator Robert Menendez (Democrat, New Jersey). In March Menendez (below) was indicted for several years of taking bribes and accepting favours for corrupt influence over legislation. For more on the domestic reasons for their attacks on Russia, read this.

Menendez

In March of 2014, at the start of the Ukrainian civil war, Republican Senators Dan Coats (Indiana) and Senator Mark Kirk (Illinois) announced in a letter to Blatter that Russia should not only lose the 2018 tournament, but also be banned from participating in it.

The attacks on Russia have been sharpest in the London press where they have been encouraged by minority party politicians, Andrew Burnham of the Labour Party, and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats. Both lost badly in last month’s British election. The current government’s sports minister, John Whittingdale, and the English Football Association (FA) president, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, have endorsed the campaign against Blatter, but stopped short of backing a Russian boycott.

On May 28 Putin went public with an attack on the US for “illegally persecuting people”, and for staging last week’s arrests in Zurich in order to influence the outcome of Blatter’s bid for reelection. Putin didn’t mention the British role.

Putin_Blatter

“As we all know, on Friday FIFA was to elect its president, and Mr Blatter has every chance to be re-elected. We are aware of the pressure that was put on him to prevent the 2018 World Cup in Russia. We know of his views, which have nothing to do with any special relations between FIFA and Russia. This is his general principled position: it’s not right to mix sports and politics. Moreover, he believes sport should have a positive influence on politics and serve as a platform for dialogue, for reconciliation and a search for solutions. I believe this is the right position.

“As for the arrests that were made, it seems strange in the very least as the arrests were conducted on the basis of corruption charges made by the American side. Whom did they charge? International officers. It may be possible that some of them did something wrong, I do not know, but the USA definitely have nothing to do with this. These officers are not United States’ citizens, and if anything did happen, it did not happen on the territory of the United States and the USA have nothing to do with it. This is yet another obvious attempt to spread their jurisdiction to other states. I have no doubt that this is obviously an attempt to prevent Mr Blatter’s re-election to the post of FIFA President, which is a grave violation of the principles that international organisations function on.

“Meanwhile, according to our media, the United States Attorney General has already stated that these officers of the FIFA executive committee have committed a crime, as though he as a prosecutor is unaware of the presumption of innocence. Only a court can find a person guilty or not guilty, and only after that can anyone say anything, even if we assume that the United States have a reason to extradite those people, though the actions occurred on third party territory… Unfortunately, our American partners use these methods for their own ulterior purposes. They are illegally persecuting people. I do not rule out the possibility that the same goes for this situation with FIFA. Although I do not know what this will result in, but the fact that this is happening on the eve of elections of the FIFA president leads one to think so.”

On Saturday, the day after FIFA re-elected Blatter, Putin sent him a message of congratulations. “Over the 17 years that you have stood at the head of FIFA, you have acquired great respect among fans, coaches and players. I am certain that your experience and organisational talent, and your efforts aimed at consistently expanding football’s geography will serve to further develop and increase the popularity of this ‘number one sport’ that unites millions of fans all over the world. I would like to stress that Russia is ready for further close and constructive cooperation with FIFA, which is especially important ahead of the 2018 World Cup. I am confident that through our joint efforts, we will hold an exceptional championship from an organisational and athletic standpoint.”

The emphasis Putin has put on the FIFA indictments and his defence of Blatter suggest he is thinking the 2018 World Cup is at risk, and that the same hostile tactics which were visible in the run-up to the Sochi Games are being pursued once more.

Some Russian media reports support this interpretation; many do not. Some are sceptical of Putin’s calculation that Blatter needed the endorsement, and are puzzled why Putin said as much as he did. Most Russian sports writers report that football corruption is so taken for granted, noone should be surprised by the indictments, and or dismiss them as an American plot.

On Saturday the Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko (below) expressed the opinion that in the parlous financial state of Russian football at present, and the budget stringencies facing the entire country, losing the 2018 tournament mightn’t be such a bad thing.

Mutko

In a detailed cost-benefit analysis published by Pyotr Orekhin of Gazeta.ru, the headline is “No championship, no problems”. The extent to which this view is shared among Russian sources gives credence to published speculation that Putin’s reason for delivering his diatribe on the US football plot isn’t what it seems; and that the Kremlin is looking for a publicly acceptable excuse for dropping the tournament.

Seven Russians have owned foreign football teams – Roman Abramovich (lead image, left); Alisher Usmanov (lead image, right); Dmitry Rybolovlev; Anton Zingarevich; Ivan Savvidis; David Traktovenko; Yury Korablin; and Bulat Chagaev. Abramovich owns Chelsea in the English FA; Usmanov is a part-owner of Arsenal in the same league. Rybolovlev owns AS Monaco in the French league; Savvidis (below, left), PAOK of Thessaloniki in Greece; Korablin (centre), Unione Venezia, a minor Italian league club; and Traktovenko, the Sydney soccer club in Australia.

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Zingarevich owned Reading, a minor English league club, between 2012 and 2014. Chagaev (above, right) owned Xamax of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, for an even briefer period, before he was arrested on fraud charges, then released to disappear, while the club went bankrupt and two of Chapaev’s associates remained behind to be convicted and given suspended jail terms. Press reports from Venice earlier this year suggest Korablin has also disappeared, having failed to get local permission to turn the football club premises into a commercial real estate development.

For more on Rybolovlev and the Monaco club, read this. For the possibility that Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the Jets, the New York basketball team, might have been persuaded to buy the Italian football club Roma, click here. Prokhorov, Usmanov and Abramovich have all spent significant sums to prop up the Russian Football Union and support domestic teams in financial trouble.

This week, though, not one of the Russian club owners is willing to speak his mind about the threats to Russia’s 2018 World Cup which have emerged over the past week.

Abramovich has been given credit in the Russian press for lobbying Blatter directly ahead of the vote on the 2018 Cup vote. His wealth is also credited for the success of the Chelsea team. Analysis of game results and league championships show otherwise. Statistically speaking, the only certain things are that Chelsea’s winning and losing streaks are random; and that Abramovich’s money persuades the fans to think otherwise.

In March 2013, Abramovich was interviewed by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in New York. How voluble Abramovich was with the FBI, and what the agents asked him, have not been confirmed by Abramovich himself, or by others claiming to know. Abramovich was not arrested or detained, his spokesman, John Mann, said at the time. Confirming his confidence that the FBI poses no risk to his freedom, Abramovich has bought a row of New York City houses for a new personal residence. For that US haven, read this.

Abramovich was asked today what he thinks of calls for a boycott of the Russian World Cup of 2018, or a recall vote by FIFA. His spokesman reiterated that Abramovich has sponsored Russian football in the past through his National Academy of Football, paying the expenses of the national team’s coaching staff when it was led by Gus Hiddink. But as for what Abramovich thinks of the threat to the Russian World Cup, Abramovich isn’t saying anything at all.

Usmanov has loaned the Russian Football Union a reported £3.9 million to cover part of the bills for the national team’s current coach, Fabio Capello (below, left). His contract calls for £6.8 million in annual salary through the 2018 tournament period. Capello is now telling the Moscow press the money has run out again, and he isn’t being paid. Usmanov refuses to say what he thinks of the World Cup boycott campaign.

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Through a spokesman in Saint Petersburg, Traktovenko (above, right) is described as having “a positive attitude to football as a sport. A few years ago, he was a co-owner of our St. Petersburg club Zenit, but that’s a long story. Now he has a completely different business interests.”

Asked what Traktovenko thinks of the FIFA campaign and the World Cup boycott calls, his spokesman refused to say, explaining this “would not be relevant to Traktovenko’s business, in the group of his companies known as Banking House St. Petersburg.”

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