Corruption in the world’s biggest sporting events is nothing new. In fact we’ve posted about it before with regard to the 2020 Olympics (and referenced other major events in the process). Where the 2018 World Cup is concerned, however, we appear to be seeing something relatively new. Rather than an organization (like FIFA or the IOC) being accused of corruption, or a single country being caught in a single scandal, it’s a host nation that appears to be under the spotlight. Specifically, football fans around the world are already convinced that Russia is attempting to rig the event.
This suspicion is not unrelated to the fact that Russia has been caught meddling other countries’ elections in recent years; there’s a perception that the government is somewhat shameless in its intent to interfere with and disrupt its rivals. However, there’s a foundation for suspicion in the sports world specifically as well. Russia has been caught up in a state-sponsored doping scandal related to international competition, and in fact has already been completely frozen out of the drug testing program for the 2018 World Cup. This is fairly straightforward: it means Russia and Russian facilities won’t actually be involved in drug testing players at its own World Cup.
Doping isn’t actually the main concern however. Suspicions about Russia’s inclination to host a fair event was ramped up when the World Cup draw was held, determining how teams would be placed into groups. As is traditional Russia, the host nation, headlined Group A, and was put with a group of teams that some took to be conspicuously weak. Even one of the more generous, forgiving recaps of the draw, which called Group A a “balanced affair” noted that it includes some of the worst teams in the tournament. That may be an understatement, when you look at the full grouping of Russia, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
If you were to look only at world rankings, the group wouldn’t look disastrous. But FIFA’s rankings are a notoriously bad indication of which teams are truly the strongest, and more advanced and current analyses have concluded that this may actually be one of the worst groups in history. Uruguay will fool many with a strong reputation from recent World Cups, but the glory days in which the team was led by the likes of Diego Forlán are in the past. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, meanwhile, should merely be thrilled to be playing in the World Cup. Russia – a mediocre national team as far as Europe goes – is possibly the strongest team in the group, and undoubtedly a favorite to advance.
This makes it fairly interesting to look back at some of the last comments that preceded the actual draw, when Vladimir Putin cited values of friendship and fair play at the ceremony. Those were nice words that may well have been in response to suspicions that already existed in the international community. Now however, with Russia having been handed the easiest draw in modern history, many have questions about just how fair things will be in Group A and possibly beyond.