Should Vladimir Putin and Russia Be Stripped of the 2018 World Cup?

Most of the bad press has revolved around Qatar 2022, but after the tragedy of Malaysia Flight 17, some politicians in Europe are asking that the next tournament to be reconsidered

Thousands of students gathered in the plaza, protesting peacefully and planning their next moves after a summer of anti-government unrest. Then the soldiers came and the shooting started. Police and the military opened fire, killing dozens, perhaps hundreds.

This was Mexico City, October 2, 1968: ten days before the Mexican capital held the summer Olympic Games and less than two years before the country hosted what proved to be one of the most fondly-remembered World Cups. Despite the bloodshed, the world played on.

While it hosted the World Cup in 1978, Argentina was in the middle of a “dirty war” and run by a junta which kidnapped and murdered thousands of people. Some were drugged and thrown out of planes flying above the Atlantic. The president of the tournament’s organizing committee was assassinated in 1976. Despite the bloodshed, the world played on.

Nearly 300 people died when a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down on July 17 over Eastern Ukraine, not far from the major city of Donetsk, which was teeming with fans only two years ago when it hosted a Euro 2012 semifinal between Portugal and Spain. Despite the bloodshed, you can bet that the world will play on.

The debate about Malaysia Flight 17 now encompasses Russia 2018, as European politicians have begun to chatter about taking the tournament away from Vladimir Putin’s country as punishment for Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. After all, it is a lot easier to grandstand about the World Cup and generate easy headlines than it is to take steps to reduce Europe’s dependency on Russian gas.

Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister of Britain, told the London Sunday Times: “If [Putin] carries on with this belligerent behavior… it’s unthinkable that he should have the privilege of hosting the World Cup in 2018. You can’t have the beautiful game marred by the ugly aggression of Russia on the Russian-Ukrainian border.” This stance was echoed by some prominent German politicians including Michael Fuchs, a senior conservative parliamentarian.

Stripping a nation of the right to hold a World Cup is a powerful bargaining chip, but it’s not one soccer’s governing body ever seems willing to cash in. “The hosting of the FIFA World Cup with the global attention it attracts can be a powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments, helping to bring positive social developments,” FIFA said in a statement last Friday.

“FIFA is convinced that, through football, particularly the FIFA World Cup and its international spotlight, we can achieve positive change in the world, but football cannot be seen as a solution for all issues, particularly those related to world politics. We have seen that the FIFA World Cup can be a force for good and FIFA believes this will be the case for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.”

Aside from an atrocity in Russia or perpetrated by Russians that can be directly tied to soccer, it’s impossible to imagine FIFA snatching away the tournament, especially given the ongoing scandals that have clouded the status of Qatar 2022.

Examine the history of major sports tournaments, from the 1908 Olympics to the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and you see that venues are changed for practical, not political reasons—because of natural disasters causing logistical problems, not crimes that prompt public outrage and diplomatic scandals. To act otherwise would be to collapse the fiction once and for all that sports and politics are distinct. To accept that sports are in fact part of life’s problems, not an escape from them.

Hosting controversies are as old as the World Cup itself. Only four European teams went to the first tournament in 1930 because it was held in remote Uruguay. The second was in Mussolini’s fascist Italy. In 1982, Colombia withdrew from hosting the 1986 tournament for financial reasons.

It’s easy to agree with the principle that FIFA, theoretically an international non-profit sporting body, should not wield political power. But the World Cup is so important that in practice, FIFA clearly does have power. Hosting a tournament requires adherence to FIFA infrastructure mandates that dictate how billions of taxpayer dollars are spent. Nations bend their laws, introducing tax breaks and temporary World Cup courts.

Hosting a World Cup is an inherently political act, every step of the way. When it’s bid time, world leaders arrive in Switzerland to genuflect before Sepp Blatter and his cohorts. FIFA is in an ambiguous geopolitical position. Read the organization’s slogan: “For the game. For the world.” And its mission statement, which says in part, “We believe that we have a duty to society that goes beyond football.”

Yet if things get too heavy, FIFA can distance itself and say “sorry, we’re only here for the soccer.” It can choose not to engage with current realities and instead claim to look to the future with its quixotic vision of soccer as a force for world peace.

It’s a stance that lets FIFA portray itself as some sort of generalized, group-hugging force for positive social change, without ever needing to directly address specific problems in any deep way, from Brazilian popular unrest to Russian aggression to anti-gay laws and apparent migrant worker abuse in Qatar. Its vision of the World Cup is as a one-way mirror, where everyone can look in, but FIFA can’t see or won’t see out beyond the confines of its own Disneyfied tournament bubble.

Of course, Europe’s leaders could get together and agree to boycott Russia 2018, which would instantly make the competition untenable. Fans could rise up and agree not to go. But that won’t happen, because there is too much at stake: too much money, too much fun. In the end, we all forget, or ignore, and play on.