Russia’s success in the 2018 bid was a triumph over internal as well as external opponents
It all started on 5 May 2009. Watching evening television news, Russian viewers saw a clip from a weekly government meeting in which the prime minister Vladimir Putin addressed the minister of sports, tourism and youth policy, the Fifa Exco member Vitaly Mutko. “I entrust you with the task of preparing a bid in the name of the Russian Federation to host the Fifa World Cup 2018 or 2022.” Soon after, he added the most important words: “I’ll sign all guarantees.”
That was vital. “The handful of dreamers”, as Alexei Sorokin, the CEO of the Russian bid committee called them, wouldn’t have been able to do anything without an order from the very top. With the world in financial crisis, Russia had enough problems to deal with without a World Cup. It was the sports minister Vitaly Mutko who first decided to mount a bid to host the tournament, something acknowledged even by the former Fifa vice-president Vyacheslav Koloskov, a man whose relationship with Mutko is distinctly frosty. “He’s well received at the place where such a project could be approved,” Koloskov said. “Nobody else could have initiated this.”
There was plenty of opposition. I’ve asked many well-informed people who was against the bidding process and received a number of different answers: the presidential administration, the FSB (the former KGB), the Ministry of Justice... Mutko was treading through a minefield, but he made it to the other side because once Putin had said something in public there was no going back.
Mutko has a lot of enemies at a high level, but his bluntness of speech suggests that doesn’t bother him too much. In 2005, for instance, shortly after he’d become president of the Russian Football Union (RFS), he was approached by Boris Gryzlov, chairman of the Gosduma (the Russian parliament), chairman of the supreme council of the United Russia governing party and a former minister of internal affairs, who reportedly gave him a list of the people he wanted appointed in various key posts within the RFS. Mutko looked him in the eye and replied, “Have you mixed me up with somebody else? There’s one person who can tell me to do things — and if he asked I’d appoint the Pope as vice-president — but I won’t listen to anybody else.” Gryzlov didn’t take the snub well; being friends with Putin has its drawbacks.
That connection goes back to the early part of the nineties when Mutko and Putin were deputy mayors of St Petersburg under Anatoly Sobchak. Mutko was cautious, though, when I asked if he and Putin had been friends since then. “Friendship is a sacred concept,” he said, shaking his head. “So I wouldn’t risk saying that I was a ‘friend’ of one of the country’s great leaders. In our state hierarchy there is a big distance between us and I try to observe that. But we have good, warm relations that are underpinned by decades of working together in a difficult period. The period from 1991 to 1996 was very difficult for St Petersburg. We went through two putsches together and the economic situation was tough. We handled all that and that united us to some extent.”
Crucially, Mutko was able to persuade Putin to make two key decisions that set the bid apart from the others: entry for all World Cup ticket-holders to Russia without the need for a visa, and free transport for all ticket-holders throughout the country during the tournament. Some ministers insisted that would lead to huge financial losses, but Mutko was adamant that without concessions large numbers of tourists simply wouldn’t come to Russia. Putin accepted Mutko’s view.
When Mutko first mentioned to Putin the idea of bidding for the World Cup, the prime minister asked what Russia’s chances were of winning. “20-25%,” he replied. He believed between 30 and 40% of the votes were already committed to Spain-Portugal and insisted Russia had no chance unless Putin became actively involved, meeting “more than half” of the Fifa Exco members personally before the vote. That marked a significant change from his tactics for the 2014 Winter Olympic bidding, when he had merely turned up at the last in Guatemala, where the vote took place, to speak to IOC delegates. This time, he could arrive in Zurich after the vote with the crown already on his head.
The British prime minister David Cameron, by contrast, went to Zurich the evening before the vote. By coincidence, he was on the same flight from London as Andrei Arshavin, who gave a speech at the final presentation, and Alexander Chernov, a member of the Russian bid committees for Euro 2008 and the 2012 Summer Olympics, who was working with Arshavin on his delivery. “We were boarding the plane in Heathrow, rehearsing Andrei’s speech,” Chernov said. “Andrei was a little ahead of me and there were two men behind me. Suddenly he glanced back and said in English, ‘Hello!’ I turned round and saw David Cameron. He also said hello and they smiled at each other. I couldn’t stay silent. So I joked, ‘You know, we are rehearsing the speech. You speak good English: could you check it for us?’
“A little later, Cameron slapped me on the shoulder and exclaimed, ‘Oh, Putin is not flying!’
“I said, ‘I know’. It seemed normal — but then I thought: the prime minister of a great country says to somebody he doesn’t know, not even trying to hide his delight, that Putin is not flying. He obviously thinks this means a victory for England. They were so scared by the thought of Putin’s speech that he says this to me at the front of the plane.”
One of Cameron’s security guards, an Arsenal fan, exchanged phone numbers with Arshavin and arranged for him to sign some shirts and balls for him. This, Arshavin said, was typical; nobody blamed him for backing the Russian bid and the criticism he received from some Arsenal fans before his return to Russia on loan at Zenit “was about my form, nothing else.”
“When I got back after the vote, I said to Jack Wilshere and Samir Nasri, ‘You are young and in 2018 I’ll sit in a jacket and tie in the VIP zone and you’ll shake hands on the pitch in front of me. And if you play in St Petersburg I’ll show you the city in all its brilliance.’”
Putin’s work on the Exco members wasn’t all he did. In 2006, he received Sepp Blatter at his official residence outside Moscow, perhaps already calculating the future dividends that warm relations with the head of world football might yield. Setting up that meeting was a triumph for Mutko who, at the time, had been at the RFS less than a year and wasn’t even an Exco member.
There are a lot of photos on the wall of the office of Vyacheslav Koloskov at the headquarters of the Russian Olympic Committee. Two are bigger than the others. Not, as you might expect, those of Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, but those of Nikolai Starostin, the patriarch of Russian football, and João Havelange, the Brazilian former president of Fifa. They, effectively, were his mentors and Koloskov, at 70, doesn’t change his portraits according to the prevailing political situation.
For Koloskov, Putin remained always slightly out of reach. “After the USSR collapsed, we organised the CIS Cup to maintain the football relations of former Soviet republics,” he wrote in his book, Onside and Offside. “Our initiative was supported by Sepp Blatter. Despite being busy, he visited this tournament every year, pointing out its importance for football development. I thought that the country’s leadership also understood this and it would be good if during such a tournament Blatter was received by President Putin. I expressed this idea to the president’s administration but got the answer, ‘Wrong scale.’”
Koloskov explained to me that the problem was that he didn’t know anybody in the Putin administration personally and so could only send written notes. At the time, Michel Platini was working as an advisor to Blatter. Finally, Putin’s administration agreed to organise a meeting with Blatter, but only if Platini was there as well. Platini, though, had to return to France for the congress of the French football federation and so the meeting never happened. “In their logic, Blatter became too familiar,” Koloskov explained. “He is a functionary and Platini was an outstanding player. So, a photo with him in the papers, in the administration’s opinion, would mean more in PR terms.”
So when did Blatter’s “scale” become right? “It’s about administrative resource [a term used idiomatically in Russian to describe closeness to power],” Koloskov said. “When Mutko became RFS president and had direct access to Putin, he was able to explain to him that he is the key figure in world football and that a lot of things depend on his attitude towards us.” Koloskov, fortunately, did not tell Blatter why the meeting with Putin at the CIS Cup didn’t happen; if he had done so, the warm relations Putin and Blatter enjoy may never have developed.
Koloskov believes Putin gave Russia one other great advantage over its competitors. “I’m not a politician or an economist,” he said, “but the other big factor in our favour is the stable political situation in the country. There is no doubt that the duo of Putin and Medvedev will lead Russia for a pretty long time. And that in turn guarantees stability in terms of fulfilling obligations. It’s not going to happen that Putin signs the documents then somebody else replaces him and isn’t interested in the project.”
There may be practical advantages, of course, but such political predictability comes at the cost of real freedom of choice. Perhaps even the leaders have begun to take their positions for granted. At the press conference he gave in Zurich a few hours after Russia’s victory, Putin was asked whether he would stand in the next presidential elections (for the term ending in 2018). Putin smiled and said that he and President Medvedev were old friends and would decide between them which would be president and which prime minister. That the people might not vote for him didn’t seem a concern; it wasn’t mentioned even for the sake of propriety. A year later, hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets in protest at the lack of democracy.
Blatter’s fondness for Russia predates his meeting with Putin. Koloskov spoke of taking him to visit Sergiev Posad, the holiest site of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the nineties where a metropolitan bishop showed him some of the shrine’s secrets.
On another occasion, when Russian hosted an IOC meeting, Koloskov took all the football delegates to a private concert outside Moscow. As they returned to the capital late at night, their bus broke down and pulled over by the side of the road. Two elderly women from a nearby house came to see what the problem was; Koloskov explained and asked if they could bring some water for the delegates. They returned a few minutes later not with water but with a tray of vodka and some food. Blatter was touched by the hospitality and got off the bus to drink with locals. He asked if the stop had been pre-planned. Koloskov insisted it hadn’t and asked why Blatter would think such a thing. “Because these ladies are so kind and the men know so much about football,” Blatter replied. “And they want Russia to be a great football power. If people in the provinces worry so much about football, the sport has a great future in Russia.”
Koloskov and Blatter had become friends in the early eighties when, as a Soviet representative on Fifa’s Exco and Fifa’s general secretary respectively, they played tennis together. The former Uefa president Lennart Johansson told me that Koloskov was not just a colleague but a close friend of many Fifa and Uefa officials.
After Blatter had beaten Johansson in the 1998 election for the Fifa presidency, relations between them were strained. “There were a lot of negative feelings after the elections,” Koloskov explained. “It happened that they both were in Moscow and we went to my friends’ house in the Moscow region. So, I shut them in a private room, put a big bottle of vodka on the table and some good food. And I told them, ‘Don’t come out until you find a common language.’ They came out after 30 minutes, the bottle half-empty. They said, ‘All our difficulties are over.’”
That sort of experience made Koloskov valuable. He had been asked to stand down from the RFS presidency to make way for Mutko in 2005 and only learned about the decision to bid for the World Cup from the newspapers. A bitterness lingered between the two but one day Mutko came to Koloskov’s office at the Russian Olympic Committee and asked him to work with the bid committee.
It is believed his participation was sealed on 22 January 2010 when Blatter met Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, at the Kremlin (Putin by then had been forced by Russia’s constitution to relinquish the presidency to become prime minister). That showed there was no disagreement in the Russian leadership about the World Cup bid. Medvedev took Blatter round the Kremlin and they met with other officials including Mutko and the deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov. It is said that at that meeting Medvedev asked Blatter how to make the Russian campaign the most effective it could be. Blatter replied that involving Koloskov could only help.
Even Koloskov’s birthday became part of Russia’s campaign. It fell during the World Cup in South Africa, on 15 June 2010. Koloskov and his friend Alexander Chernov, whose idea it was, brought vodka, caviar and other Russian food to a hotel in Johannesburg and arranged a great party at which Koloskov’s wife, Tatiana, who speaks excellent English, acted as toastmaster. Koloskov invited all the Exco members and former Exco members who were in South Africa, not expecting many to come. But the majority did turn up: Blatter and his family, Johansson, Villar, Hayatou, Erzik, Bin Hammam, Warner... it was the perfect environment for low-level promotion of the Russian bid.
There were Russian tricolours on the walls and Russian music to which, it’s said, everybody, including Blatter, was dancing when the president of the Mexican federation introduced a mariachi band who played for an hour. Even Angel Villar, the president of the Spanish federation and so the head of a rival bid, danced along.
Alexei Sorokin, the CEO of the Russian bid, was in Angola in 2010 for the Confederation of African Football Congress that preceded the African Cup of Nations. It was part of a long programme of trips and, when he got back to Moscow, he fell ill. “My temperature went up to 40°C,” he said. “I thought it was normal flu and the doctors told me the same. But it didn’t drop for several days and I was delirious. Finally the third doctor I saw asked if I’d been in any tropical countries recently. When I said Angola she arranged a blood test straightaway.”
It confirmed that he had malaria, which had progressed so far that he almost lost a kidney. The trip wasn’t even worthwhile. “That congress and all the presentation possibilities at it were taken up by Qatar,” he said. “They didn’t let any of the candidates for 2018 speak, even though they were only bidding for 2022. There were rumours they’d paid the Africans three or four million dollars so that nobody else got the chance to speak. Many journalists hammered the organisers of the congress for that. Fifa didn’t interfere in the presentation process before then but after that it started to observe it more closely.”
At around the same time, there was a change of leadership at the RFS as Medvedev ordered that all state ministers had to leave their positions as heads of sports federations. Mutko stood down and was replaced by Sergei Fursenko, the former president of Zenit St Petersburg, who seemed indifferent to the World Cup bid. Putin stepped in and ensured that the bid committee could continue its work separately from the RFS, which was probably just as well.
At a Concacaf congress in New York, for instance, Fursenko, eager to be seen to be working for Russia, buttonholed a man and started explaining to him how strong the Russian bid was. Only after 10 minutes was he persuaded to stop; he’d mistaken a waiter for Jack Warner, the then-president of Concacaf.
Yet at other times Fursenko seemed to be working directly against the Russian bid. As soon as he became head of the RFS, he demanded that the bid committee leave their office on the sixth floor of the House of Football in Moscow, supposedly to clear it for Dick Advocaat, the manager of the national side. Every other day one of Fursenko’s assistants would come in and ask when they’d be leaving. That was at just the time that Sorokin was recovering from malaria, but there was little sympathy, with Fursenko’s people allegedly telling the bid team that they had no leader and that even if Sorokin survived he’d be crippled. Eventually, just as the Russian team completed its bid book - the hardest stage of the process - it had to find new offices.
Yet Fursenko was among those who went to Zurich Messe to collect the certificate that confirmed Russia as the hosts in 2018. Sorokin is diplomatic about their relationship. I asked him if he shook hands with Fursenko after that. “Why not?” he asked. “He personally didn’t do anything bad to us. The representative who came in and spoke to my assistants about my disability may have been acting on his own initiative. Most likely Fursenko didn’t know.”
In July 2011, I talked to Franz Beckenbauer, who was an Exco member at the time of the vote. He was enthusiastic about Russia’s success. “I think they will be perfect hosts,” he said. “All of the European candidates were strong but I think England lost out to bad press. They were complaining about Fifa and the Exco members. The Exco members are human beings, after all. Maybe they didn’t like being asked to vote for England after being told they are corrupt. And the joint-bids (Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Holland) possibly weren’t very popular with the voters. So Russia had the best chance from the very beginning. For me, they are a wonderful host.”
Arshavin agreed the press had a major role. “It’s a paradox of the freedom of speech,” he said. “It’s the occasion when this freedom in your country suddenly plays against you. English people promote tolerance, freedom of speech and plenty of other freedoms. But when there is too much of it, maybe it’s not so good.”
Koloskov was scathing about the Sunday Times investigation that led to Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii being excluded from the Exco, having been found guilty of corruption. “It was an absolute provocation, which caused a furious reaction of Exco members,” he said. “They judged the story an abuse. It’s a family which had got used to being responsible for each other and all together. With the help of faulty methods, two members of Exco were blamed dishonestly, which put a stain on the Exco’s reputation in general. I was an Exco member for almost 30 years and there was no question how I would have reacted to such an incident if I were still on it.”
Given Fifa acknowledged the pair’s guilt and punished them accordingly, it’s an extraordinary stance to take. “Fifa reacted to the situation very efficiently,” Koloskov went on. “It quickly and clearly pointed out that it wouldn’t tolerate a violation of its ethical code. But that doesn’t cancel the provocative essence of the methods used by British press.”
Not surprisingly, Mark Franchetti, the Moscow correspondent of the Sunday Times, has a very different view. “All this talk of an offended family in which everybody defends each other is a mafia mentality,” he said. “When you see the video there’s concrete proof of an Exco member being prepared to take money for his vote. It’s brilliant, very strong journalistic work. After this story Fifa, rather than uniting against England, should have said to the Sunday Times, ‘Thank you very much, guys, for what you have done. We didn’t know that and we found out thanks to you. It’s terrible, but thanks again for helping up remove corruption from our organisation.’”
So was Franchetti asked to investigate the Russian bid? “I only had a request from the Sunday Times to write a story about the scandal concerning Muto at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver [when he claimed 97 breakfasts on expenses at a cost to the Russian state of $4500 for a two-week stay]. It had nothing to do with football and I didn’t investigate anything to do with the World Cup.”
That wasn’t the end of it. A little while later, Franchetti was asked to call Koloskov. “My colleagues in London had information that he, as an advisor to the Russian bid, presented paintings during the campaign to Blatter, Platini and the Belgian Exco member Michel D’Houge, who’s a friend of Koloskov,” Franchetti said. “D’Houge himself said he’d been presented with a painting.
“I called Koloskov and he denied everything, saying it was nonsense and a lie. He said that he didn’t meet personally with Blatter during the bidding campaign, that he has a bad relationship with Platini. He confirmed that he is friends with D’Houge, but said he didn’t present with him any painting, only with a Russian casket as a souvenir. But D’Houge, whom my colleagues reached later, repeated, ‘No, he presented me with a painting!’
“Of course, that doesn’t mean Koloskov bribed D’Houge — particularly given D’Houge talks openly about the painting. They’re friendly and maybe Koloskov just gave him a cheap picture as a souvenir from Russia. He has a right to do that. But the fact their stories are so different makes you suspicious. But that’s not my business; I sent Koloskov’s quotes to the paper and the rest of the work was done in London.”
To my surprise, Koloskov was quite happy to discuss the issue. “I was on vacation in my father’s homeland in the Ryazan region, when a correspondent of the Sunday Times called me. ‘Vyacheslav Ivanovich,’ he said, ‘I have an urgent question. I got a call from the paper and they told me that you presented Blatter and Platini paintings by Picasso.’
“I was shocked and replied, ‘First of all, during the bidding campaign I never met Blatter personally. The president of our country met him, and there was no need to duplicate that. Second, my relations with Platini are far from friendly. I talked with him, but formally and briefly. And the last time I’ve seen Picassos was in 1982 when I visited an art exhibition during the World Cup in Spain. So, I regarded the story as a joke.’
“The journalist went on to ask about D’Houge. I said that I gave nothing to D’Houge apart from a casket for his wife. Sorokin and I flew to see D’Houge. Of course we knew he’d vote for Belgium-Netherlands but I thought if they went out in the first round of voting, we had an opportunity to get him on our side in the second round.
“We had a very good dinner in a restaurant near the airport. Sorokin had some picture with him. I had a casket for his wife. I didn’t ask how much the painting cost, but there was no way it could be expensive: first, we observed all the Fifa rules, and second, the bid committee had very little money. I didn’t see this painting unwrapped. But the fact that Sorokin freely brought it through customs both in Russia and Belgium made clear that it was far from a masterpiece.
“I gave D’Houge the casket in the restaurant, and the painting was also given through me, but I immediately forgot about it. If D’Houge called me and said, ‘Slava, the press has information that you presented me a painting,’ of course, I would have confirmed that. But there were no calls, so I decided not to say anything, thinking that the media want to make a scandal out of it. In fact, it was true I didn’t present it myself: it was a souvenir from the bidding committee.
“The final act of this fabricated story was in Monaco at the Uefa Super Cup in August 2011. We met with D’Houge there, and he said, ‘Slava, you cannot imagine what was going on with that painting. The press called me every other day. I had to hire an expert. He looked at it and said it was an ordinary picture without value, that its cost is minimal. We gave the media an official statement about that and finally they left me alone.’”
Other issues might not be so simply resolved, but for Russia phase one is complete. The next stage is to do what Germany did in 2006 and put on a tournament so good nobody remembers anything about the bid process. And most important of all, Russia has to try to ensure the World Cup doesn’t become another Potemkin village, as we call it — a shining showcase built for naive foreigners to hide the depressing reality, as the Russian minister Grigory Potemkin is supposed to have built facades along the banks of the Dnipr River to impress the empress Catherine II.
The Russian bid committee worked extremely hard and achieved a great result but what is important now is the outcome. Russia has a unique opportunity to change not only its football and the stadiums but also the whole country and its mentality, its willingness to learn foreign languages and accept different cultures. That will take a lot of effort but it can’t just be proud to have won the bid; that is just the beginning.
Igor Rabiner’s book, Как Россия получила чемпионат мира по футболу-2018. Спортивно-политическое расследование, [How Russia got the 2018 World Cup: A Sporting and Political Investigation] is published by Astrel.