Andrew Osborn








Corruption, cronyism and deep coffers; 2018: Russia, main rival

The Sunday Telegraph, 21st November 2010 13:56

By Andrew Osborn in Nizhny Novgorod

Two-hundred-and-fifty miles south-east of Moscow a barren peninsula juts into the cold waters of the River Volga. Overgrown with wild trees and scrub, it is a desolate patch of sandy land lashed by rain and wind. It is also, unlikely as it may seem, one of the centrepieces of Russia's bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

If Fifa chooses Russia over England and the other bidders on Dec 2, a futuristic bowl-shaped stadium will spring up on this unpromising land in four years. An artist's impression of what it will look like shows the peninsula transformed into a neatly landscaped sliver of land with a gleaming new stadium linked to the mainland by bridges.

The project, backed by the Kremlin's oil billions, reflects the essence of Russia's bid: 14 of the 16 stadiums that it is promising will be at Fifa's disposal come 2018 are nowhere near completion and in many cases exist only on paper.

In the nearby city of Nizhny Novgorod, Dmitry Svatkovskiy, the local region's deputy governor, is undaunted by the challenge. A former Olympic pentathlete champion, the official told The Sunday Telegraph that he believed Russia would win the right to host the prestigious and potentially lucrative tournament hands down. "Right now the stadium is not there," he conceded. "But it will be done and it is not difficult. We can build it in two and a half years, and we have a full eight years. We could build a new city in that time let alone a stadium."

Svatkovskiy's bullishness is matched by the fantastic sums of money the Kremlin has pledged to lavish on the tournament. With the personal backing of Vladimir Putin, the bid promises an unusually large amount of new investment. Almost £4billion on brand new sporting infrastructure, a further £7billion to upgrade hotels and airport infrastructure, a massive £2.5billion for communications infrastructure, and at least another £2billion on developing sport inside Russia. One senior official involved in the Russian bid has said that so much money is tied up with it that it is "uncountable".

The money will come from the Kremlin's own coffers as well as from private investors such as billionaire oligarch and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. Russia urgently needs to upgrade its crumbling Soviet-era infrastructure and would probably have needed to spend a big chunk of the money earmarked for the World Cup anyway. However, the sheer breadth of its bid has impressed Fifa officials, not least president Sepp Blatter, who has already made encouraging noises. "You cannot deny [ignore] Russia if they bid for something," he said enigmatically this summer. "They are more than a country. They are a big continent, a big power."

Russia's supporters say that if Fifa wants to spread football fever with all its commercial trappings into a part of the world where it remains relatively undeveloped this would be the ideal moment.

"All the bids are good," Svatkovskiy mused. "England is the motherland of football and Spain are the world champions. But Fifa usually makes strategic choices about where it can grow football as a sport and as a business. Everyone knows that 144million people live in Russia. It is a huge market."

Russia envisages holding World Cup matches in four different geographical clusters across Russia. All the potential host cities would be linked by a high-speed rail network by 2018, it has promised, and all of the cities are within a two-hour flight from Moscow. Since Russia itself straddles Europe and Asia, officials argue that a World Cup would help spread the sport farther afield. "Russia, bordered by 18 countries, represents access to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East for Fifa," Andreas Herren, a spokesman for the Russian bid, says.

If Fifa did plump for Russia it would be making history. The country has not hosted a tournament of this scale since 1980 when it was part of the Soviet Union and hosted the summer Olympics. Nor, Herren added, has any East European country ever hosted a Fifa World Cup. "Russia offers Fifa millions of new hearts and minds," Herren says. "We truly believe it is time for [Russia] in line with the philosophy that Fifa has shown during the past 16 years by entering new markets and continents."

Putin has gone the extra mile to make the Russian bid work. He interrupted his summer holiday to meet a Fifa delegation and assured them: "Everything will be on time." He has also promised visa-free entry into Russia for ticket holders and free ground travel to help fans get around a country that covers one fifth of the Earth's surface. "Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is instrumental to the bid," Herren confirmed.

However, if Fifa does award the tournament to Russia it will be in the knowledge that the country's sports world is beset by shortcomings that could ultimately threaten the realisation of Russia's grand plan.

At the top of the list is corruption, cronyism and abuse of power. The chairman of Russia's bid committee, Vitaly Mutko, also Russia's sports minister, was the subject of a recent report from Russia's audit chamber, who questioned his behaviour at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It found he had stayed at one of Vancouver's most expensive hotels for 20 nights despite the fact that it cost more than 11 times the amount recommended by the Russian Finance Ministry. He had also claimed for the consumption of five breakfasts a day, costing the Russian taxpayer almost £23,000.

Mutko braved the scandal out, dismissing the allegations as "complete nonsense and nitpicking". While others lost their jobs over the debacle, Mutko, who is thought to be close to Putin, kept his. He also sits on Fifa's executive committee and will be casting a vote on Dec 2.

The delicate question of match-fixing casts another long shadow. Sergei Kapkov, the vice-president of the Russian Football Union, conceded this summer that up to 40 per cent of matches in the country's first division were fixed: "Such a statistic does exist. The figures are shocking, but it is our footballing reality."

Then there is racism. Russian sports officials have admitted that it is a serious problem and one that needs to be tackled. There have been a number of incidents in recent years when fans have hurled racist abuse at foreign dark-skinned players and taunted them by making monkey sounds or by throwing bananas on the pitch.

In one infamous episode this summer, fans at Lokomotiv Moscow held up a banner celebrating the sale of Nigerian striker Peter Odemwingie to West Bromwich Albion. The banner, which read "Thanks West Brom", included an image of a banana and Odemwingie said it was not an isolated incident. "Coloured players feel the open racism there and I recall a game against CSKA Moscow when their fans started the sick [monkey] noises," he said.

Alexei Sorokin, the chief executive of Russia's bid team and the man who enraged England by saying that London had a high crime rate and a problem with youth alcoholism, has conceded that racism is a problem but played it down. "Racism is a general not a Russian problem," he said. "It is a problem that has arisen in all footballing countries at one time or another including in England."

For Russia, the World Cup would be about far more than just football. Just as in Soviet times, Kremlin leaders see hosting such events and doing well in them as an opportunity to showcase the country's growing geopolitical clout. "We live in a great country and winning will be very positive for us," says Svatkovskiy, the regional politician in Nizhny Novgorod. "Lots of tourists will come and see that we do not look like bears but are human beings after all."

Herren, the bid's spokesman, agreed: "Russia is undergoing a transformation. We want to showcase 'the new Russia'."

Competition: Russia's bid, which has been heavily backed by Vladimir Putin and has impressed Fifa president Sepp Blatter, contains plans to play the games across four geographical clusters, with each city a two-hour flight from Moscow. It will also plough money into a high-speed rail link and new stadiums