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Can Russia Not Be ‘Denied’ World Cup?

Pavel Kolobkov

Pavel Kolobkov

Russian Sports Minister

"I am certain we won't be denied the World Cup.”

Source: State-run TASS news agency, March 3, 2017
Likely True
...Time is on Russia's side, making any change of venue unlikely.

Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov was unequivocal in his statement on March 3, stating both the World Cup in 2018 and the Confederations Cup later this year (essentially a test-run tournament pitting the best teams of world soccer’s regional federations against one another) would “take place in Russia.”

Kolobkov was speaking days after a delegation from FIFA – soccer’s world governing body – visited Russia to check out venues ahead of arguably the world’s number one sporting event.

"I am certain we won't be denied the World Cup. Besides, this June, we are hosting the Confederations Cup. Ticket sales have been launched and spectators are registering online. There's no doubt both the Confederations Cup and the World Cup will take place in Russia," Kolobkov was quoted as saying by the state-run TASS news agency.

Questions about whether Russia should be denied the World Cup began to swirl quickly after ex-FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s shock resignation in June 2015.

The FIFA scandal engulfed Russia – as well as Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 World Cup – due to doubts the bidding process to award them the World Cup was less than fair.

Russia’s doping scandal – exposed by the McLaren reports -- also didn’t help Moscow's case.

However, Kolobkov’s confidence is likely justified. There is little chance, if any, at this point, that FIFA would shift the site of the World Cup.

And the reason is simple: time. With the Confederation Cup literally months away, there is simply little if any way to cancel or move the event on such short notice.

“We are likely at a point of no return for Russia to host the World Cup. Hence it is safe to say that the tournament will take place there,” explained Manuel Veth, editor at the Futbolgrad website, which covers the sport mainly in the former Soviet Union.

“It is hard to imagine any scenario where Russia could lose the World Cup,” Veth told in an email response.

Just days after Kolobkov spoke, the head of FIFA himself stated that there is no reason to move the World Cup from Russia.

"The World Cup bid process was fair and there are no reasons to take away the event from Russia," FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura said on March 9 at a ceremony in Saint Petersburg's newly built soccer stadium.

The futuristic 68,000-seat stadium is set to hold the opening and final games of the Confederations Cup this year and will also stage World Cup matches in 2018.

"Today's ceremony showed how much Russia wants to stage the best Confederations Cup and the World Cup in history. FIFA also did everything possible to avoid a boycott and we succeeded in that," Samoura said.

For FIFA, the World Cup is big business, and in Russia tickets are being hawked at some of the steepest prices ever. The most affordable tickets for group stage games are priced at $105.

And like the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the 2018 World Cup is likely to be marred by cost overruns that will cause headaches for the Kremlin.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup will take place from June 14 till July 15, 2018 at 12 stadiums in 11 Russian cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Saransk, Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Ekaterinburg, Samara, Sochi and Rostov-on-Don.

Even some two years ago at the height of the FIFA crisis, the likelihood of Russia being denied the World Cup seemed unlikely.

"Preparations in Russia are thoroughly advanced. We are only three years away from the World Cup in Russia, so to switch it to another venue would be very problematic and involve huge legal costs. And any FIFA case would have to be completely watertight," explained Gavin Hamilton, chief editor of World Soccer Magazine, to RFE/RL back in June 2015.

The World Cup has been contested 20 times since the inaugural tournament was held in Uruguay in 1930.

And only once was the venue changed. That happened in 1986 when the event was switched from Colombia to Mexico, which ended up hosting soccer’s premier event for the second time in less than twenty years (Mexico was also host in 1970.)

However, it was not FIFA that pulled the event, but the Colombian government itself and with ample forewarning.

Bogota announced its decision in 1982, a time when the country was not only facing economic troubles, but, more worrying, a growing M-19 guerrilla movement.

More than the dodgy World Cup bidding process, it was the apparent scope of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program that had some calling for FIFA to take the prestigious event from Russia to punish President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, has long used sports as a means to promote its international worth. It is not the only country to do so,” wrote Martin Rogers in USA Today in December 2016.

“Being rich enough and organized enough to successfully host a global extravaganza on the scale of a World Cup offers the kind of political chest-beating Putin loves. Losing that opportunity, because your regime instigated a cheating blueprint on a historic scale, is the kind of heavyweight embarrassment powerful enough to make a dent in the walls of the Kremlin.”

But rather than embarrassment, Putin is likely to bask in the glow of this global sporting event.