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World Cup a highlight of Putin's presidency, says top Russia correspondent

FIFA President, Gianni Infantino speaks to Vladimir Putin, President of Russia as they walk onto the stage during the Final Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia at the State Kremlin Palace on December 1, 2017 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Getty Images)
by Keir Radnedge, AIPS Football Commission Chairman

LONDON, January 15, 2018 - Russia** will “pull out all the stops” to make a success of its World Cup hosting in the face of ongoing criticism about its hosting credibility after the doping and discrimination scandals.

An insight into the determination of the Russians has been offered by Angus Roxburgh, a former BBC and Sunday Times correspondent in Moscow and a man with rare insight and understanding of the country.

Roxburgh worked as a translator in the former Soviet Union before becoming a foreign correspondent, ‘lived’ the transition out of communism and later had a short spell as PR adviser to the Kremlin.

His qualifications for a view on the Russian World Cup in June and July are evident from his career as recounted in newly-published Moscow Calling.

Russia won host rights to the 2018 finals after beating off opposition from England, Belgium/Holland and Portugal/Spain in a controversial two-handed vote in December 2010 by the executive committee of world football federation FIFA.

Since then the hosting has come under sustained attack, particularly from some media outlets with an anti-Russian agenda – though recent claims in Russia of state-funded encouragement are wide of the mark.

Roxburgh said: “The Russians will pull out all the stops to try to ensure the World Cup is a success and as problem-free as possible for fans.

“Vladimir Putin will see this is as a highlight of his presidency - he will have been re-elected just a few months before it all kicks off - and will be determined to make it a success.

“He is already anticipating that western human rights groups will try to ‘cause trouble’, as they did around the Sochi Winter Olympics by highlighting gay rights.

“He might even be worried that in the current climate of anti-Russian fever, following the alleged collusion in the US election of Donald Trump, some countries might even boycott the World Cup. This would, in his eyes, be par for the score.”

The tormented entanglement of sport and politics has been a feature of major Russian involvements ever since the tit-for-tat Olympic Games boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles in the early 1980s.

Roxburgh said: “Ever since the Moscow Olympics in 1980, Russia/the Soviet Union has tried to impress the West with a great show, and perfect organisation, only to find their efforts thwarted by Western protests.

“For example, the 1980 Olympics were boycotted by the US over Afghanistan, the Sochi Games saw a deluge of criticism over human rights and corruption ... so Putin will expect the same this time.”

In the past four years, the doping scandal has erupted with the revelations of whistleblowers such as athlete Yuliya Stepanova and former Moscow laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov plus reports commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency from veteran Olympic committee member Dick Pound and Canadian law professor Richard McLaren.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne has committed to delivering verdicts before the end of the month on appeals against doping bans from 42 Russian athletes, many of whom hope to compete in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics next month.

Roxburgh said: “Putin has been hit hard by all the bans of Russian athletes for doping and it's significant that he sacked Vitaly Mutko [Deputy Prime Minister and ex-Sports Minister] in December from heading the local organisation of the World Cup because of his involvement in this.

“So Putin is trying to minimise the possible disruption but it's perfectly possible that some new revelations about Russian interference in western elections will emerge in the next months and cause some countries to thinking about boycotting coverage or whatever.

“Politics, in other words, is never far from the surface when it comes to Russia in international sports.”

As Roxburgh concluded: “This is a shame but then . . . they do bring it upon themselves.”

** Moscow Calling: Memoirs Of A Foreign Correspondent, by Angus Roxburgh, Birlinn, £17.99

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