On a strange issue uniting foreign affairs and sports, Republicans and Democrats have come together to attempt a major league task: Persuading the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to deprive Russia of its hosting duties vis-a-vis the next World Cup.
In a letter earlier last month, Senators Menendez, Johnson, Durbin, Perdue, Shaheen, Cornyn, McCaskill, McCain, Graham, Risch, Toomey, Rubio and Kirk urged FIFA President Josef “Sepp” Blatter to “convene an Extraordinary Congress of FIFA to consider stripping Russia of the privilege of hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup.”
The letter highlights Russian action in relation to Ukraine as the reason to strip Russia of its role. “Allowing Russia to host the FIFA World Cup inappropriately bolsters the prestige of the Putin regime at a time when it should be condemned and provides economic relief at a time when much of the international community is imposing economic sanctions,” it argues.
Several of the senators are long-term, high profile critics of the Russian regime, and foreign policy hawks more broadly. One—Menendez—has previously used his Senate perch to weigh in on international soccer matters before, co-signing a 2014 letter asking FIFA to use natural grass fields instead of turf for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Needless to say, the Russia letter is much higher-profile, and more likely to grab attention in both sports and political circles both because of its focus (the 2018 men’s World Cup) and target (Putin).
The question is, will it have any effect?
Long-time FIFA observers are, to put it mildly, skeptical about the ability of anyone outside FIFA—other than World Cup sponsors—to really influence Blatter or his organization’s decision-making. Mere consideration of Qatar as a prospective host of the 2022 World Cup was the subject of much controversy because of its dreadful human rights record and stance on Israel. There are still those actively seeking to strip Qatar of its hosting responsibilities—a cause that looks futile, though perhaps noble.
Ironically, getting the 2018 World Cup out of Russia could be easier. It’s doubtful that pressure from American politicians will provoke a change of view from Blatter—indeed, on April 20th, he tweeted “Just met President Putin. I believe the 2018 #WorldCup will help to build bridges” (a statement that seems as farcical as it does defiant). However, some who track FIFA decision-making closely believe that Russia’s belligerence on the international stage could put its role as host in somewhat greater danger than that tweet might suggest.
Yes, it would probably take Russia going to war again and showing its hand as a major international aggressor in a very overt and indisputable fashion to put FIFA in a position where it would have to seriously consider such a move. However, if you buy foreign policy hawks’ assessment of the Kremlin and its likely game plan going forward, Russian aggression beyond what we’ve seen already does not seem beyond the bounds of probability.
Under Putin, Russia has shown a more muscular, belligerent side from central Asia to the Baltics. Though by the same token, some countries’ fear of angering the Russian bear could prevent an international outcry over Putin’s role as World Cup host. Bringing the prestige associated with hosting international sporting events to Russia is a high priority for Putin, and while in the soccer-lukewarm United States this might be less than obvious, in the rest of the world fútbol is massively important from both an economic and a cultural standpoint. Oddly enough, soccer might be too sacred in too much of the world for the international community to make a political issue out of it.
Still, two of the letters’ signatories are expected to compete in the 2016 Republican primary, giving them a platform to highlight the FIFA issue as a way to stand up to tyranny and show foreign policy leadership. The louder that message is delivered, the more pressure will be brought to bear on sponsors over the location of the competition. And the more uneasy sponsors are with the location, the more likely it gets that FIFA takes a second look, regardless of anything Russia itself might, or might not, do from a military perspective.
So there is a pathway to pushing FIFA on this, albeit one that is extremely narrow, very long, and full of potholes. The odds are, Putin will get to keep his World Cup, even though FIFA could send a powerful message against authoritarianism and international bullying while simultaneously enhancing interest in soccer globally and in major markets by giving it to the games to the United States, Canada, or Mexico. Should FIFA change its mind on Putin, the US would be in a great position to host the competition again, with plenty of NFL stadiums ready to accommodate throngs of diehard fans.
But that result is about as likely as America beating the German national football team 5-0 in a World Cup Final. For now, it seems, the only victory in sight on this issue is that of bipartisanship over the usual red team vs. blue team beltway nonsense, and potentially the rhetorical win that some presidential campaigns might be able to bank by talking about this subject more.