What the World Cup 2018 scandal has to do with the Sochi 2014 Olympics

It’s hard not to see a political motive behind the decision to call into question Russia’s right to host the 2018 World Cup, especially after attempts to boycott the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

As a result, your first reaction after hearing about the FIFA World Cup corruption scandal — a scandal so ugly it could wind up as one of the worst scandals ever in the history of sports — should have been: “Uh-oh, here we go again.” After all, the takedown of powerful FIFA officials on corruption, fraud and racketeering charges has the not entirely unthinkable chance of stripping the World Cup from Russia in 2018.

Sound familiar? In many ways, this calling into question Russia’s right to host the 2018 World Cup is reminiscent of similar attempts to block Russia from hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014. And that was in 2012–2013, before the appearance of “little green men” in Crimea and the breakout of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine, both of which occurred within weeks of the closing ceremonies in Sochi.

In the lead-up to Sochi 2014, it was possible to make the case that the West was actively looking for a way to downplay or otherwise derail Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympics, but was simply lacking a valid geopolitical argument. What the West needed was something similar to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example, which led to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.

As a result, the impetus for the “Boycott Sochi” adventure was based primarily on social and cultural grounds — Russia as an unwelcoming nation for LGBT fans and athletes — and secondarily on Sochi’s inability to host the event in the first place (the whole “there’s no snow in Sochi” argument). The “terrorism” argument — Sochi being located so close to the violent Caucasus — also played a role.

Ultimately, the attempt to block, boycott and otherwise throw a pall of uncertainty over the Sochi Olympics was a case of too little, too late. By the time the calls began to “Boycott Sochi,” it would have been practically impossible to move the Winter Games elsewhere (although Salzburg and Vancouver were more than happy to oblige if necessary).

So you can just imagine how the West is now salivating at the chance of stripping Russia of the World Cup — or, at the very least, dragging Russia’s reputation through the mud and filth of the “FIFA mafia” scandal. In short, the West is now close to having the same geopolitical argument that it had in 1980 — the invasion of Ukraine is the new invasion of Afghanistan — to call for a boycott of the World Cup. That’s still a dicey proposition — especially because it’s tricky to define the crisis in Ukraine as a true “invasion” — so the mafia-like FIFA corruption charges offer a convenient back door.

What makes things so easy for the West — if, indeed, this is a politically motivated attempt by the West to disqualify Russia’s World Cup bid — is that Russia’s involvement in the FIFA scandal seems to fit a bigger narrative — “Russia as a corrupt country without a respect for the rule of law.” Anyone’s who’s ever read a story about corrupt Russian oligarchs stashing their cash overseas in secretive bank accounts and running all kinds of scams to launder their ill-gotten gains can easily buy into the idea of Russian World Cup officials also being involved in this scandal.

And, of even greater concern for Russia, this scandal comes in May 2015, almost three years before the start of the 2018 World Cup. In other words, there might be time to nullify the Russian bid and hand it over to someone else. The Brits, already locked in an increasingly ugly war of words with Russia over Ukraine, could be more than happy to oblige, provided that FIFA decides to hold a snap election on new bids. What soccer-mad nation, after all, wouldn’t jump at the chance to host the World Cup?

And Russia is significantly concerned enough about its World Cup 2018 bid that both Vladimir Putin and the Russian Foreign Ministry have both come out strong in defense of the World Cup bidding process, and most importantly, Russia’s right to host the World Cup. Both the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry have questioned the U.S. jurisdiction in this matter, especially since none of the FIFA officials implicated were U.S. citizens. In an official statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry even called the FIFA arrests “illegal.” Vladimir Putin suggested the U.S. was meddling in international affairs.

Who knows? Maybe the true reason for John Kerry’s surprise visit to Sochi in May was to politely warn the Russians: “Ok, you pulled the wool over our eyes on Crimea. But there’s going to be hell to pay for it.”

The bad news for Russia is that it can’t expect the FIFA World Cup scandal to be the last effort by the West to strip away the 2018 World Cup. In just the past few weeks, there have already been various negative articles coming out in the media that could impact Russia’s ability to host the World Cup, including the provocative news that Russia is conscripting prison labor to build everything needed for the World Cup as a way to keep costs down.

Yes, there’s the old, recycled argument from the Sochi Olympics — the whole “this thing is going to be way too expensive” argument. And, of course, there’s going to be the outcry over hosting World Cup events in places like Volgograd and Sochi (too close to the terrorism-prone Caucasus), and quite possibly, in any Russian cities located close to European hostilities over Ukraine (Kaliningrad, perhaps?).

Of course, maybe it’s still too early to chalk all this up to a giant conspiracy to weaken and humiliate Russia. After all, Russia seems to see a conspiracy any time something bad happens to it in the world. If oil prices drop, it must be a vast U.S.-Saudi conspiracy, right? If violence breaks out in Europe, it must be some sinister plan to disrupt Russia’s gas pipelines, right?

The best — and possibly, only — recourse for Russia right now is spin this FIFA corruption scandal as a Western effort to cripple the development of an emerging multi-polar world. That’s because the other World Cup bid that’s under question is the 2022 Qatar bid. That means you have the West — led by the U.S. — ganging up on Russia AND the Middle East. That changes the narrative significantly.

You can already glimpse the broad outlines of such an approach from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which basically called the U.S. involvement in bringing to light the FIFA scandal an extraterritorial abuse of legal power: “Stop trying to hold court far beyond your own borders using your own legal norms.” The reason this approach works is because it helps to focus the rest of the world on the times when the U.S. has used raw, naked power (both political and economic) under the guise of “international law” to achieve its goals.

From a purely geopolitical perspective, the West will have a lot harder time blocking the World Cup than the Winter Olympics. Forget the timing and complexity issues involved in taking away the Russian bid and handing it to someone else. It’s simple logic — most of the nations competing on the skating rinks and the ice rinks in the Winter Olympics are European or North American nations. You don’t see gold medal winners from Latin America, Africa or the Middle East on the podium.

But all that changes for the World Cup, where the BRIC nations and all the nations of sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and Southeast Asia suddenly play a much larger role. If Russia can present itself as the true champion of a multi-polar world — and not as some lawless Russian bear running amok on the European continent — there may be hope that Russia can hold on to its World Cup 2018 bid and actually turn it into a useful extension of Russian soft power in the developing world.