“We cannot appear to be bitter – and nor should we be looking for excuses,” the words of Spanish sports minister Jaime Lissavetzky. The perfect summary of how the defeated nations should react to their failed bids to host the 2018 world cup.
You cannot be bitter. It may have been played out in meeting rooms whilst wearing suits, but Sepp Blatter was correct in reminding the packed auditorium in Zurich that “this is sport” and in sport there are always winners and losers. There may have been so many world leaders, sports ministers, actors and sports stars wandering the FIFA halls that it may at times have felt like the G20 or the oscars, but ultimately it was sport.
Jamie Lissavetzky is also correct in saying you cannot look for excuses. Both the Spain/Portugal and the England bids were far superior to the Russian one. Technically both bids presented superior stadiums, superior transport and superior infrastructure. Emotively, both bids also had a footballing heritage and culture that could not be touched.
Vincente del Bosque made it clear what the two Western European bids were lacking, “We had everything to be able to host the World Cup. But maybe Fifa’s executive committee wanted to expand football to new, more economically powerful territories.” England, Spain and Portugal, they already love football. Their tv channels are already cleared for Champions League matches, Europa league games and sponsors pour money into the game in a desperate attempt to be associated with Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney.
Russia, not so much. The game is popular, but it isn’t burned into the collective cultural conscience; yet. The league is mired in problems on and off the field. Clubs are running budgets vastly different to the money circulating in the game, corporate giants like Gazprom are bankrolling clubs to success. On the field, black players are forced to suffer constant racist taunts. Famously, the Nigerian international Peter Odemwingie’s departure to England was welcomed with a banner depicting him as a monkey holding bananas.
The sport itself is clearly growing though. Ten years ago, how many Russian players could anybody name? Now we have Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov playing for top clubs. The bigger league clubs are able to attract bigger names to them (admittedly often through their pay packet, but they still go) and St. Petersburg won the UEFA Cup in 2008. The calendar has been recently shifted to a winter schedule to match the more dominant nations. Russian football is clearly a coming force.
I have avoided mentioning the many political failings that should scupper any Russian attempt to host an international event. I think it is clear that FIFA don’t want to consider these things. FIFA do football, nothing else. They hope that they can use football to help a nation take steps forward, but football is all they do.
Many people think FIFA have completely lost the plot. Robert Palomar wrote in Spanish sports daily Marca, “If the world chose Russia over Spain and Portugal then maybe we should all emigrate to another planet. If they would rather play in new stadiums that look like spaceships than in the Bernabéu or the Camp Nou, then we have all gone mad. Fifa has committed a mistake, a big, big mistake.”
There is no denying FIFA have taken a gamble. Is there any way to stop the corruption and clientelism that dominates Russian society overrunning the World Cup? How can you stop the fans on the terraces shouting what they like at whatever player they like? How can you ensure this vast country provides an exciting and interesting Cup that leaves fans haying for the next World Cup?
These are tough questions and it is up Alexei Sorokin, the chief of the Russian bid to provi the answers. Obviously, the world will hope they put on a show, but there is no denying the organisers face a tough job in getting the stadia ready.
Prime Minister Putin is vey clear on what to expect, after the victory he told a TV interview:
“Russia loves football, Russia knows what football is and in our country we have everything to conduct the 2018 World Cup on a very worthy level.”
Let’s hope Putin is right.