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The company you keep

Dmitri Medvedev and Igor Smirnov

Sepp Blatter

The British tabloids are this week shocked (shocked) by revelations that FIFA, the international governing body of Association Football, appears to be deeply corrupt. The bizarre decision to give the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (which has a tiny population of well under 2 million people, no football culture or traditions, no suitable stadiums, and a great deal of political uncertainty) has received particular criticism. Alternative bidders for that 2022 event included the United States, who have facilities in place such that one thinks they could hold the event next week if they wanted to, plus Japan, Korea, and Australia, all of which would require slightly more preparation but who could none the less hold the event without much fuss if they wanted to.

The fine Scottish journalist Andrew Jennings (no relation) has spent much of the last two decades attempting to publicise the corruption and deeply unsavoury connections of FIFA, UEFA, the International Olympic Committee, the motorsport body the FIA, and various other sporting organisations. He has found this to be a deeply thankless task. The trouble with sporting administrators everywhere is that they are allowed to play by different rules to everyone else. Typically, they are arrogant, venal, and often deeply stupid, but the glamour of their product is such that politicians, journalists, and various other people who should know better will flatter them, and will suck up to them in return for their favours. The articles and books and television programs of the aforementioned Jennings have contained very few things that have not ultimately turned out to be true, but in return for this he has been shunned by both the sporting world and much of the world of so called “respectable” sports journalism. Sports journalism is a strange thing. It is pretty much required to be biased, the journalists themselves are always very close to the people they cover, and the narrative that they write is not required to greatly resemble the truth, as long as the narrative is good.

I confess that the only thing I find interesting about the decision to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is the level of hubris involved. After holding the 2010 World Cup successfully (although in some ways expensively to FIFA’s coffers) in South Africa, FIFA now seems to believe that they can hold the event anywhere. A host nation’s lack of preparedness is possibly even an advantage. When preparations go wrong, FIFA can take over the running of the event, and provide expensive “consultants” that it pays for with its own money. If a lot of construction is required, this is good. Construction industries are often corrupt. The opportunities for graft and corruption are greater. The less prepared the host nation, the more of this can happen.

So Qatar appears to make perfect sense to me. Once you figure out that FIFA officials like to be heavily bribed while being treated like medieval feudal monarchs, and you then ask the question as to which potential host country is best at treating them this way, and you accept that the decision as to who would host the 2022 World Cup was made solely on this criteria, things become entirely uninteresting.

What is actually more troubling is the decision to give the 2018 World Cup to Russia. This decision has received less disdain in the English press in the last week (despite the fact that one of the countries that lost out to Russia was England) possibly due to the decision being not quite so obviously absurd as Qatar 2022. Russia is after all a large country. Russia does have a little of a football tradition – their national side is a second ranking European side that sometimes qualifies for big events and sometimes doesn’t, and their clubs are good enough to be competitive in the UEFA Cup/Europa League (ie the second division of intra-European competition) without being quite good enough to be competitive in the Champions League (the genuine first division). And Russia is a big, somewhat belligerent country that is perceived to be powerful. Russian money already influences football further west – from Russian ownership of English club Chelsea, to a surprising number of shirts with “Gazprom” written on them in Germany and other clubs further East.

Once again though, from the point of view of what might have actually been the best bid, the decision to give the World Cup to Russia was absurd. Of the other bidders, both England and Spain/Portugal were in the category of bidders who could have probably hosted the tournament this time next week. Given the tournament to either of these bidders would have seen the tournament hosted by the most famous and storied stadiums in the footballing world, run by organisers who are used to hosting capacity crowds approximately once a week. The combined bid of Belgium/Netherlands was not quite as good, but was still much better. Russia on the other hand requires a lot of new stadiums in what is (despite the brash glamour of Moscow) a country with baroque bureaucracy and crumbling, second rate infrastructure. Moscow may appear flash, but visitors to some of the secondary venues may find them less so

At this point, I am going to digress to somewhere that may initially seem tangential and irrelevant. I hope my readers will forgive this for a moment. There is method in my madness.

Last August, I visited the Republic of Transnistria, which is a breakaway region of the Republic of Moldova. Moldova is principally Romanian speaking, but is an ethnically complicated place. (Romania is also an ethnically complicated place, but in not quite the same way). Approximately, during the second World War, the Soviet Union (disgustingly and immorally) annexed the easternmost portion of Romania, which it combined with a sliver of territory it already held east of the Dniester river to form the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. As with most places in the USSR populated by non-Russians and particularly by non-Slavs, the Soviets attempted to settle Moldova with ethnic Russians. They had been at it in that eastern region over the Dniester for longer, so that portion of the Republic of Moldova was by the late 1980s pretty much exclusively Russian (not even Ukrainian). Moldova proper appears today to be ruled by a political elite of Romanian speakers mixed with a business elite of Russian speaking mafioso types.

In any event, upon the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991, and after a short but bloody war the Russian speaking region east of the Dniester river seceded from Moldova with the aid of the Russian army to become the Republic of Transnistria. The Russian Army is present in Transnistria to this day. The Russians like having an outpost this far West. Transnistria borders the pro-Russian region of the Ukraine near Odessa. Transnistria became the personal fiefdom of a dictator with a gloriously Bond-villain sounding name: Igor Smirnov. Transnistria is a rather grim and depressing place, at least partly because it retains the symbols of the former Soviet Union: hammers and sickles, ostentatious military parades and monuments, other dubious stuff. Transnistria’s independence is recognised by no generally recognised states – not even Russia. (It is recognised by other breakaway regions of former Soviet republics: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and to some extent Nagorno-Karabakh).

When you go to Transnistria and in particular its capital city of Tiraspol, it is not all that clear what is there, beyond weird remnants of communism. The Kvint distillery makes some of the finest spirits in central Europe, but the fact that a country feels the need to put a brandy distillery on its five rouble banknote does tend to suggest that there is a certain sparcity of other legitimate economic activity. There are terrible rumours of arms dealing, drug and human trafficking, the peddling of bodily organs of dubious provenance, and various other activities frowned upon in respectable places.

But, of course, there is the Sheriff factor. There is a logo of a single company on all kinds of businesses: supermarkets, petrol stations (can one say subsidised Russian oil money, by the way?), a mobile phone network (using the CDMA/IS-95 technical standard that unlike GSM family standards does not require registration with the certificate authorities of the ITU, of which Transnistria is not of course a member), a television channel, a construction company, even the aforementioned Kvint brandy distillery. Basically, a single conglomerate controls pretty much the entire Transnistrian economy. It has two main managers and shareholders, former KGB agents Viktor Gushan and Ilya Kazmaly, and it has all kinds of special privileges in Transnistria that no other companies are allowed. (Most notably, Sheriff is the only company in Transnistria that is allowed to trade in foreign currencies directly). These privileges were granted by Igor Smirnov’s son Vladimir Smirnov, the head of the Transnistrian customs service Despite occasional public spats with Gushan and Kazmaly, it is fairly widely acknowledged that Sheriff is a front through which Igor Smirnov controls, profits from, or at least plunders the Transnistrian econony.

Dedicated football fans might just be starting to understand the purpose of this digression, as a team named Sheriff Tiraspol have been seen in European football recently, in the previously mentioned Europa league. Although Transnistria claims to be a separate country from Moldova, its football teams compete in the Moldovan league. The Moldovans presumably originally tolerated this because this was originally a de-facto acknowledgement that Transnistria was in fact part of Moldova, and expelling Transnistrian teams from the league would have suggested this was not so. Or possibly they were pressured by Russia, and by Russia’s friend’s in FIFA and UEFA, or by the Russian mafiosa who rule Moldova in concert with the Romain speaking politicians. Or something.

In any event, approximately 15 years ago, the omniscient Transnistrian Sheriff corporation founded a football team, named FC Sheriff Tiraspol. With money that came from somewhere or other, that corporation recruited players from Africa and Latin America, and it rapidly became the dominant team in Moldova. And when I say dominant, I mean dominant. Sheriff have won every Moldovan league since 2000. In European competition, they are good enough to at times qualify for the group stage of the UEFA Cup/Europa League. This tends to imply they are about as good as a middling first division Dutch club, perhaps.

Moldova is perhaps the poorest country in Europe. Transnistria appears bleak next to Moldova. However, the one non-bleak place in Tiraspol is Sheriff Stadium, which is a beautiful 15,000 seat football stadium built to the highest standards. (There is a Mercedes Benz dealership in the same building as the stadium, incidentally. This franchise also belongs to Sheriff corporation, incidentally. Throughout the Russian sphere of influence, one finds German companies doing business in places where the English or the French fear to tread). This appears to have cost around $200 million to build. This is of the same magnitude as Transnistria’s annual GDP. Lord only knows where the money came from. (That is a lot of black market organ transplants of illicit AK-47s). I make no connection, but the phrase “Russian oil money” has appeared earlier in this post).

One of the interesting things about FIFA and UEFA is the interpretation of regulations. Theoretically, for a certain level of international match, a certain standard of stadium is required. The only stadium in Moldova that satisfies the standards necessary for international matches is Sheriff stadium in Tiraspol. Thus, the Moldovan national team has been required to play its home matches in Tiraspol in Transnistria. This has not gone down well with actual Romanian speaking Moldovans, who have stayed away from the matches in droves. On the other hand, Sheriff Tiraspol have been playing in Europe, and have made the rest of the Moldovan league irrelevant, and have become the host of Moldovan national matches. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has attended at least one match at Sheriff Stadium, and said the facilities were “wonderful”.

The Transnistrians lack of international recognition would prevent them from joining UEFA and FIFA in their own right, and yet they have somehow managed a reverse takeover of Moldova’s membership of these organisations. The feeling in Transnistria is that this grants them certain legitimacy that they would not have otherwise. UEFA and FIFA have gone along with this, and have supported this. Once can only speculate as to why, and who exactly is friends with who, and who exactly else is involved. And where exactly the money goes.

One might compare the situation with another State of limited recognition, the Republic of Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia. The Kosovars love their football as much as anyone. (This is not entirely a positive – football teams and nationalist movements are mixed up in the Balkans in ways that are not always savory). However, their teams have long been excluded from Serbian leagues and the world. The option of playing in the league of a neighboring country (whether or not they then take it over) is not open to them. FIFA and UEFA’s rules apply here in a different way. One sort of thinks this might have something to do with their having the wrong friends.

Correction: Unfortunately, a couple of paragraphs describing the doings of Sheriff corporation in Transnistria were omitted due to a badly placed tag when this piece was originallly posted. This has now been fixed.

21 comments to The company you keep

  • Michael,
    Everyone has known that FIFA (especially under the watch of Mr Slack Bladder) is hopelessly corrupt. The only question was whether they were slightly more or less corrupt than the IOC.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    It seems that whoever writes the next James Bond novel – after the recently completed one by by Jeffrey Deaver – ought to model his villain on Blatter or some of this lot.

    I am reading a Le Carre novel about Russian crooks. It is actually pretty good, even though Le Carre has gone off the boil a bit in his dotage.

  • David Crawford

    In a way, as an American, I am glad we didn’t get the 2022 World Cup. The idea that we would have been stuffing money into the pockets of the scumbags running FIFA is sickening.

  • It’s somewhat off topic, but my first reaction to the first photo was that the guy on the left, Medvedev, looks a lot like the actor Andy Robinson, who was the murderer in the movie Dirty Harry.

    Back on topic, I deeply regret that London did get the Olympic Games, for all the kinds of reasons explored in this excellent post.

    And come to think of it, if you shave the head of the guy who played that Media Mogul villain who tried to start a war with China in one of the Bond movies, you would get something looking not unlike “Igor Smirnov”. Like you Michael, I can’t take that name entirely seriously.

  • John K

    He reminds me of Ming the Merciless.

  • Dave Walker

    I’m also glad Britain didn’t get the World Cup, for all the same security reasons I’m disappointed we got tbe Olympics (of course, I’ll bet whoever is currently holding the sport-related purse strings is rueing the day we ever petitioned to host either).

    However, I think FIFA couldn’t have done much more to expose its own corruption than to award the competition to Qatar; the own goal here, is spectacular.

    When it comes to what should be done about it, I re-iterate a suggestion from the Daily Telegraph; as the FA doesn’t have the capability to revoke FIFA’s rights to use the Rules of Association Football (I checked the relevant agreements), parties which object to FIFA’s decision should club together and arrange an alternative international football tournament at the same time as the World Cup – and then leave the decision regarding which competition nations choose to compete in, to market forces…

  • Steven Rockwell

    How about the world simply build an island somewhere specifically to host international events. If that’s too costly, simply pick an island, kick the locals off, and call it a day (see also, Diego Garcia). Then we can play all the international sports/games/tournaments/whatever therewith no corruption at all.* Some kind of sales tax pays for the day-to-day operations of the island and nobody is actually a resident of the island. As Army Ranger from http://www.actionfiguretherapy.com so eloquently puts it, “problem solved, problem staying solved.”

    *Yes, I realize the corruptions and kickbacks is why people get involed with stuff like the World Cup, Olympics, and Little League in the first place. Take that out of the equation and support for sporting events dries up fast.

  • simply pick an island, kick the locals off, and call it a day

    But then who will sell Coke and hotdogs, and clean up the cans and the wrappers afterwards?

  • Andrew Zalotocky

    So they need a country with “flexible” morals and a need for lots of construction work…there can be only one candidate:

    SOMALIA 2026!

    You know it makes sense. Even the slogans write themselves:

    Somalia…One visit and you’ll never go home!

  • Some kind of sales tax pays for the day-to-day operations of the island and nobody is actually a resident of the island.

    Actually, the 40,000 sex workers who the fear mongers always claim will show up at the next big international sporting event can be the residents responsible for the upkeep.

  • Steven Rockwell

    I gave some thought to the “who is going to sell concessions and pick up the litter” question. Here’s a few possible solutions:

    1) Keep a few of the locals in virtual slavery. Pay them a pittance and make them live in worker quarters (read: mud hovels). This will keep the international crowd off our backs PR-wise. When they ask what happened to the locals we don’t have to lie, we just point to their new homes and mention how much better their lives are now, complete with semi-indoor plumbing, shoes, and vacation time.

    1a) Or contract with a country like China or India that has an excess of idle workers. They already work for slave wages so it wouldn’t be virtual slavery so much as a lateral promotion.

    Second) Contract with the Japanese to build some type of vending machine/robotic sanitation unit/animatronic hotel staff. If there’s every a bloody robot revolt, for the record we never saw Westworld.

    C) You know that game the Aztecs had that was kind of like a cross between kickball and basketball and ended with human sacrifice? We go that route. whatever tournament we have, the lowest ranked team from that tournament has to serve as island help for the next tournament. For example: the worst losers from the World Cup until the next World Cup. This also has the added avantage of meaning we’ll have so much manpower on the island (a lot of international tournaments means a lot of losing teams) so that we can claim s very large pool of workers is keeping wages low.

    Obviously, there are a few practical bugs to work out, but I’m really just coming up with the concept, not workable solutions. If you need any other information, please contact my patent attorneys at Dewey, Cheatem, & Howe, Esqs.

  • Gary

    Who cares about football?
    Its sport, a trivial matter indeed.

    FIFA is no more significant than Simon Cowell’s X-Factor, and should be treated as the irrlevant fluff it really is.

  • Who cares about football?

    A lot of people. And that is the problem here, as due to this, it gives truly ghastly people access and power over supposedly more respectable people who should know better. David Cameron and Prince William and various other dignitaries were last year shaking hands and flattering these people in an attempt to win the World Cup for England.

  • If you are going to host the Olympics, you need to build an athletes village to house the huge number of competitors, usually a new main stadium, and a whole lot of other facilities for obscure sports that will be never used again. (The IOC demands that these all be physically close to each other, because they aren’t paying, and this can lead to new facilities being built when there are perfectly good facilities 50 miles away, too). Holding the Olympics is thus vastly expensive, whoever is doing it.

    The World Cup on the other hand requires about ten high capacity stadiums suitable for soccer, a fair number of good hotels to house the players, officials, and spectators, and good transport infrastructure to get around. England, and Spain, and the United States were thus all capable of hosting the World Cup without spending a penny, as they already have all these things. As a British taxpayer, I wouldn’t have minded England holding the World Cup, as I would not have been asked to pay for anything, whereas I very much mind the Olympics, particularly given that I have paid for one already (Sydney in 2000). That said, having these corrupt fat-cats prancing around self-importantly is something best avoided, so it is still probably a good thing the event is not coming to England.

  • Laird

    Steven, I really like your numbering system:


    Do you hire out for accounting work?

  • Sunfish


    Slight problem with Option Second: what happens when they evolve? And rebel?

    (all of this has happened before…)

  • Who cares about football?

    I do not, that is for sure, but you are a fool if you cannot see that huge numbers of people care about it deeply.

  • Keep your eye on FC Terek Grozny, the chairman of whom is Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya and former warlord. Ruud Gullit has been signed to manage them, although I really don’t think he knows who he is dealing with.

  • Steven Rockwell

    Laird, yes, I am available for consulting work. My rates are probably reasonable. On account of a slight tax problem (I am between accounting firms at the moment), I think it would simplify matters if I was paid in cash. Used twenties works best I find.

    As an aside, I turned in a paper in college with the numbering system I used just to see if the professor would catch it. I think the rest of the series was IV, Echo, Eff, g, Part the Ninth. She didn’t.

    Sunfish asked,
    Slight problem with Option Second: what happens when they evolve? And rebel?

    (all of this has happened before…)

    We sue the Japanese for faulty design. At the trial we say stuff like, “your honor, who could have even though about something like this happeneing? I mean crap like this only happens in bad sci-fi movies. ”

    Barring that, hide in a bunker, wait for someone to lead us to salvation or victory. I’m not oppossed to welcoming our new machine overlords if it comes to that.

    No matter what, I say we kill the first person to think about shooting our technology into the sun and living off the land. It’s going to suck dying of a tooth abcess when we shoot our dental drills into the nearest star so we can live without technology. My ancestors didn’t figure out how to use their big brain and oppossable thumbs so I could live without Charmin Quilted and use leaves instead.

  • Tim: Presumably Gullit is yet to send his family to an undisclosed, secure location? Seriously, I do wonder about people who get themselves into situations like this…

  • Laird

    “My ancestors didn’t figure out how to use their big brain and oppossable thumbs so I could live without Charmin Quilted and use leaves instead.”