The Power Of 'Political' Football: Why Putin Will Go To Any Lengths To Hold Onto The World Cup

by Paul Dyer
4th May 2018

There is a strange tussle going on inside my head.

On the one hand, I can be rather pessimistic - especially about mundane things or those that no one else outside my household cares about. On the other, when the stakes are higher, the optimism kicks in. A 10 per cent chance of rain? Better cancel that BBQ. Possibility of World War III? Not going to happen.

I know I should be more concerned by Russian aggression towards the UK, it's just that I have never envisaged it escalating beyond stern words and a diplomatic stand-off. Not for a few months, anyway.

The reason? Football.

Or more precisely, the 21st World Cup.

Like Arsene Wenger, I am a big believer in sport being a force for good, enabling unity and friendship across nations. Yet, perhaps unlike the outgoing Arsenal manager, I am not expecting Vladimir Putin to hold his hands up and say: "You know what, let's put all this unpleasantness behind us. C'mon England!"

No, I think it has gone all quiet on the Eastern Front ultimately because of cold, hard cash. 

And there is no bigger cash cow than FIFA's quadrennial jamboree. 

There is, of course, the prestige of holding the tournament. The eyes of the world will be watching and Putin will want to put on a show. Although that will likely be of secondary importance to Russia's president. If he doesn't care what those individuals who have their fingers on nuclear buttons have to say, he probably won't be that bothered whether Tresor in Gabon or Svetoslav in Bulgaria think his tournament rivals Italia 90. What he will care about is the billions of dollars of foreign money pouring into Moscow, St Petersburg and the rest. To that end, he will not want the hoteliers, bar owners, merchandisers, stadia bigwigs or even the touts missing out on their piece of the pie.

When you rely on popularity at home to embolden you abroad, you would not want to be responsible for your supporters losing a once-in-a-lifetime business opportunity and risk your hero status.

And who's to say he is not a massive football fan, who has dreamt of bringing the tournament to Russia ever since first winning the presidency in 2000? Of course, if that's the case, you wouldn't want to be in the manager's shoes when the hosts fail to lift the trophy. Or have to politely explain that you already have a fairly decent striker when he turns up boots in hand. Either way, there is no way Putin will allow Russia 2018 to be cancelled at the 11th hour.

However, assuming it were, and assuming FIFA would still be keen for the tournament to go ahead - and putting the inevitable national upheaval aside - which countries could possibly step in to take it on at a moment's notice?

Not many. There's Germany for one. Then, er, the United States and England. He'd love that, wouldn't he?

Still think WWIII is on before June?

Personally, I think you can all relax.

As for what happens when everyone has packed up and gone home, well, all bets are off.

Although I'm still not that worried, obviously...

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