It seems eccentric, to say the least, that the FIFA selection committee chose Russia as the World Cup’s home in 2018, and all the more so as it meant overlooking perfectly serviceable countries such as Britain. (They also chose Qatar over the U.S. for 2022, but that's another counterintuitive story altogether.)
Why not Russia, you might ask. After all, the country is home to numerous top-drawer soccer teams and has a solid pedigree for hosting international club games at their stadiums. Countless reasons come to mind but I need mention only three: Chechen terrorists, the thick smoke blanketing Moscow this summer, and the corrupt officials at every turn. My personal experiences with those officials are in harmony with their dreadful reputation. At the Moscow Biennale three years ago, I encountered arbitrary bureaucratic bullying everywhere—inscrutable customs controls and shakedowns that, to an outsider, can be Kafkaesque.
The FIFA committee's selection looks even more bizarre when you consider that the Russians already have their hands full with the 2014 Winter Olympics, slated for the Black Sea coastal town of Sochi. Does FIFA expect the Russians to pull off two extremely challenging feats of efficiency and hospitality within a space of four years?
It’s a tall order, given the genuinely troubled, perhaps even insuperable, state of unpreparedness at Sochi: By 2014, more than 200 new Olympics facilities need to be completed, including an entire mountaintop complex that will house ski-jumping, bobsledding, snowboarding, biathlon, a major road, and a highspeed rail link—not to mention scores of new hotels, restaurants, and sundry other infrastructure projects.
All this in a place that gets very little snow; Sochi is famous as a warm-weather resort. Here's a nice caustic summary of Sochi's woes in which former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a native of Sochi, cites the road costs at $130 million per kilometer, about “50 times the average cost” of one in the U.S. Such is the extent of the bribery and corruption.
When I visited Tbilisi earlier this year, Georgian government officials there gleefully dwelt on Moscow's troubles over the Winter Olympics—and that was before the additional headache of the FIFA announcement. Sochi's port facilities, they said, were incapable of handling the delivery of massive construction equipment and supplies, not least because bad weather had caused severe damage the previous year.
The port itself needs such equipment for its repairs as the Olympics approach and, to date, nothing has been done. According to Georgian officials, the nearest functioning ports with adequate road and rail links are in Georgia itself. They believe that Vladimir Putin will have to ask Tbilisi for help, or his prestige will suffer a severe blow.
This could prove awkward, what with Russian troops still occupying parts of Georgia after the 2008 invasion. Events such as the World Cup and the Olympics inevitably act as tests of a host country's mettle and leadership, but, in this instance, the high-stakes events dovetail with Russian inadequacy and insecurity.
Russians are famously sensitive about their prestige in the world, considerably more so than about such mundane things as a comfortable income or transparent government. This has been manifestly true of the Putin era, during which the Kremlin has encouraged the public's delusions of Russian imperial grandeur while making no progress on human rights, civil liberties, media freedoms, employment, or infrastructure maintenance outside the largest cities, among other rather fundamental concerns. Virtually the entire Caucasus region from Dagestan to Ingushetia remains a dangerous and crumbling hinterland, as do any number of Russia's provinces.
Russians have been willing to suffer considerable hardships for the price of upholding their sense of eminence in the world. But FIFA and the Olympics will deliver an impartial verdict on their stature, one which neither the Kremlin nor the empire-besotted populace can repudiate.
What right do we have, the ordinary Russian might ask, to invade Georgia or to offer Georgian separatists Russian identity when we can't deliver the goods on our own turf? Seen in this light, FIFA's decision looks rather pointed. The committee certainly knew about the problems at Sochi, yet they handed this prize to Russia. Either they are putting their own credibility at risk or, more likely, they have knowingly upped the ante on the Putin administration.
Melik Kaylan writes for The Wall Street Journal and Forbes.