The incredible decision to hand the 2018 World Cup to Russia caused controversy and claims of corruption as soon as the announcement was made by Sepp Blatter back in December 2010. That decision still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth on the eve of the tournament.
There was certainly shock, but also a frustrating level of inevitability as the Russian delegation, which included Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, were left jubilant at being awarded the hosting rights. England, who also bid to host the competition and had David Beckham, the Duke of Cambridge and then prime minister David Cameron in their team, we left furious and red-faced after their bid, which it emerged cost £15 million, secured just two votes.
But within hours of the announcement there were questions being raised about the transparency of the voting process and the organisation as a whole. The BBC was forced to defend showing a documentary about allegations of bribery and corruption at FIFA before the vote took place and the governing body’s vice-president, Geoff Thompson, lamented people who had broken their promises to back the England bid.
However, Vladimir Putin, who was Russia’s prime minister at the time said the contest was “fair” and dismissed questions that England were “cheated”.
Yet in 2015, then FIFA president, Mr Blatter, suggested to the Russian news agency Tass, that the committee had agreed that Russia should win hosting rights before the vote because there had never been a World Cup staged in eastern Europe.
A corruption scandal soon engulfed FIFA in the summer of 2015 on a scale never before seen in football. US investigators arrested six officials in a sensational racketeering probe, with Swiss authorities raiding FIFA HQ to gather evidence and documents for a separate investigation that was looking into allegations of criminal mismanagement and money laundering. All of this was connected to the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the successful 2022 World Cup bid from Qatar.
Mr Blatter was thankfully replaced, but not without a struggle, by new leadership who promised to clean up football’s image and enshrined in policy a commitment to protect human rights.
Despite all these murky goings on, Russia were allowed to remain as hosts for 2018. And they have continued to do so amid the threat of racism and homophobia, which has long been engrained in Russian football and society. The security of visiting fans has also been raised following hooliganism and violent scenes on the streets of Marseille and within stadia, which marred Euro 2016.
The attack on England fans by what French prosecutors called an “extremely well-trained” and “hyper violent” group of Russian fans has cast a long shadow over the World Cup and England fans who usually travel to these tournaments in huge numbers are not doing so for Russia.
Apparently, there have been attempts to curb hooliganism by Russian authorities in time for the competition, which has included security services forcing the leaders of firms or ultras, to sign agreements that they will not organise or participate in violence.
There has also been a deep freeze in relations between the Kremlin and the West since early March when former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, were poisoned with a nerve-agent in Salisbury.
Add to this the row over a suspected chemical attack in Syria and Mr Putin’s support for the regime of Bashar Assad, there is a tense political backdrop that has prompted the Foreign Office to warn people heading to Russia of “the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time”.
Then it emerged this week that LGBT fans have been warned against “public displays of affection”, amid fears of attacks or discrimination. Remember, this is a country that has recently (2013) passed a law banning gay “propaganda” to minors.
If the decision to award Russia this World Cup wasn’t smeared with corruption and backhanders, surely those on FIFA’s voting committee would have looked properly at whether staging a tournament in such an unbalanced and controversial country was the right decision, instead of lining their greedy pockets with crooked cash.
Russia need to stage a brilliant tournament to win back any respect from around the world.