How Russia won the 2018 World Cup bid

The second of December 2010 is a day that has gone down in infamy.

It was the day in Zurich when the then FIFA President announced who would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. Of course the moment Sepp Blatter pulled out a card and read the name Qatar is the most memorable and controversial moment but no less important and no less controversial was the choice of the 2018 World Cup hosts – Russia.

In a way, both choices were not much of a surprise. FIFA under Blatter had become much less Western European-centric and looked to spread power and money in football around the world, so a first World Cup finals in the Middle-East and another in Eastern Europe fitted their M.O. perfectly.

Russia in particular has a long and deep history in a game that is widely popular in this vast country of nearly 150 million people.

So, how did two eminently predictable outcomes become the symbol of the worst of FIFA corruption?

The process that led us to Russia and Qatar was perhaps one of the most controversial in the history of sport, involving political deals at the highest level, allegations of corruption – which are still emerging to this day – and intriguingly the use of a wide number of intelligence services and various other spooks and hangers-on in a bid to get a crucial edge in the vote.

But the process began in 2007 three years earlier, when FIFA abolished its policy of rotating the finals between confederations and crucially, then general secretary Jérôme Valcke pushed through an idea to host the 2018 and 2022 votes together. This as it turned out was a disaster.

Soon enough the runners and riders were known – Russia was against England as well as joint bids from the Netherlands and Belgium and Spain and Portugal for 2018. Although Blatter had been sceptical of joint bids meaning that England would likely be Russia’s biggest rival even though the English were disliked within the corridors of FIFA’s power largely because of the British press reporting on various corruption scandals.

Qatar was up against Australia, favourites the United States, Japan and South Korea.

The next two years were a dizzying process of hard lobbying and rule bending. The bids had to convince the 24-person FIFA Executive Committee or ExCo.  It contained names that are very familiar now – Chuck Blazer, Mohammed bin Hammam and Jack Warner, alongside the likes of more established figures like Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer.

What followed was an orgy of spending and power politics on all sides.

Qatar would invest heavily in building outposts of its Aspire Academy in countries that just happened to have a member of the ExCo.

The Russian bid had been caught giving artwork to an ExCo member Michel D’Hooghe although it was later found to be worthless. England had handed out £230 Mulberry handbags to the wives of ExCo members.

What also became clear is that the ExCo members had been making outlandish demands for cash and gifts and sometimes prestige. Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay for instance was reported to have wanted to meet the Queen. Jack Warner demanded that a close family friend be given a job somewhere in English football.

By the time the vote came around Zurich was full of celebrities lobbying for their causes. Prime Minister David Cameron arrived with Prince William and David Beckham hoping to sprinkle a little stardust.

Chuck Blazer, Sepp Blatter and Franz Beckenbauer were all members of the ExCo.

But they weren’t the only outside guests.

A measure of just how serious the bidding nations were taking it was reflected by the fact that Zurich appeared to be awash with spooks. Intelligence agencies, according to numerous people within the campaigns, were hard at work trying to secure an advantage.

Bonita Mersiades, who was working on Australia’s 2022 bid, recalled how the 2010 Zurich vote was awash with spooks engaged in espionage: “The intelligence agencies that were there said it was really noticeable when the Russians turned up because no one could hear or see anything.” The Russians she explained “had jammed everyone else’s devices.”

But that doesn’t mean that the English bid was whiter than white.

A former MI6 man had been hired to “gather intelligence” on rival bids and had seen Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich being employed to secure a Russian World Cup in 2018.

“Roman was absolutely integral to the Russian bid” the ex-MI6 agent later said whilst also claiming an agreement had been struck long before between Qatar and Russia as part of a huge natural gas deal.

“I remember seeing him attending private meetings with Sepp Blatter in South Africa and thinking to myself “we don’t do that, so we’re fucked.”Roman was very visible. Any suggestion that he paid money, I don’t know. The way he operates, you’d never find out.”

The ex-MI6 man was later revealed to be Christopher Steele, a Russia expert and former Moscow bureau chief who was also the author of the so-called ‘Trump Dossier’, a salacious document that had contained lurid allegations of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia.

When the votes came in it wasn’t even close.

England were eliminated in the first round with just two votes – one of them presumably from England’s ExCo member Geoff Thompson.

Russia won on the next round of voting with thirteen out of twenty-two. Two ExCo members Reynald Temarii and Amos Adamu were suspended when a Sunday Times sting suggested that they’d been open to selling their votes. Qatar had also secured their bid.

Afterwards a delighted Vladimir Putin announced that Abramovich would be paying for some of the stadiums to be built “I don’t rule out that Mr. Abramovich may take part in one of these projects.” he said. “Let him open his wallet a little it’s no big deal. He won’t feel the pinch. He has plenty of money.”

The fallout was huge.

Figures within the failed England bid would use parliamentary privilege to regale stories of how FIFA ExCo members had demanded outlandish bribes.

A Qatari whistleblower claimed $1.5m had been paid in bribes, but she later, bizarrely, recanted her version of events.

Michael Garcia’s report into bribery and corruption relating to the World Cup bids was doctored by FIFA.

The Sunday Times reported that Mohammed bin Hammam had operated a slush fund to secure World Cup votes.

American lawyer Michael Garcia was appointed by FIFA to investigate the corruption allegations. When the report was released – long after Garcia had resigned over FIFA’s attempts to shut the report down -it cleared both Russia and Qatar but found the England bid to have been in breach. Although that might not tell the full story of Russia’s bid.

FIFA’s Ethics Committee asked to see the Russian Federation’s computers but they refused, saying that they had only borrowed the computers and that they had now all been destroyed.

In the aftermath, dozens of FIFA officials were indicted in a US racketeering case, a roundup which famously began with a dawn raid at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich. Whilst others were banned from football including Platini and Blatter.

Well over half of the 24-person ExCo have been indicted or banned from the game.

When Blatter was removed after losing the 2015 FIFA Presidential election and then suspended from FIFA. He later told the Russian news agency TASS that it had been agreed beforehand that Russia would get 2018 and the US would get 2022, but Platini he says had thrown a spanner in the works.

“For the World Cups it was agreed that we go to Russia because it’s never been in Russia, Eastern Europe, and for 2022 we go back to America. And so we will have the World Cup in the two biggest political powers. And everything was good until the moment when Sarkozy came in a meeting with the Crown Prince of Qatar, who is now the ruler of Qatar. At a lunch afterwards with Mr. Platini he said it would be good to go to Qatar and this has changed all pattern.”

Platini admitted that he voted for Qatar but always denied voting under pressure for political reasons.

Vladimir Putin was, of course, delighted to have won and has stuck by Blatter “We all know the pressure that was exerted on him with the aim of banning the 2018 World Cup in Russia” Putin said after Blatter was suspended, suggesting that he was being targeted by sore losers in England and the US.

The World Cup is only a few days away now and there are perhaps other issues rather than corruption to worry about when it comes to Russia 2018. The erosion of democracy, the persecution of the LGBT community and a continued low-level war in eastern Ukraine.

But such was the mess around that day in Zurich, the rules were changed.

Now, every FIFA member would get a vote and they’re about to do it again with FIFA voting on the hosts of the 2026 World Cup on the eve of this year’s finals.

This time it’s the USA, Mexico and Canada v Morocco, but the change in format hasn’t made it any less controversial. Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric on migrants, especially from the Muslim world seemed to alienate America’s voting base handing the advantage to Morocco.

But then Trump tweeted out a threat “The US has put together a strong bid with Canada and Mexico for the 2026 World Cup. It would be a shame if countries that we always support were to lobby against the US bid. Why should we be supporting these countries when they don’t support us (including at the United Nations)?”

As ever, football, FIFA, the World Cup and hard politics are never far away.

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