Richie Sadlier: I remember when the World Cup was magic, not sorcery
The stench of corruption and cheating hangs over the greatest sports event in the world
Lowest-ranked team Saudi Arabia are drawn against Russia in the 2018 World Cup. The second- and third-lowest ranked teams were also, coincidentally, drawn against Russia. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
I can’t put the feeling into words, but I’ll never forget it. Niall Quinn had just equalised against Holland and I was jumping around ecstatically in the sittingroom with my parents. I don’t know why it sticks out in my mind above the other key moments of Italia ’90 but I remember 11-year-old me thinking I couldn’t have been any happier. A magical memory from a summer spent falling in love with the World Cup.
It will be a very different experience watching next summer’s tournament in Russia, and not just because the Republic of Ireland won’t be there.
According to reports this week in the Guardian, the abrupt sacking in November 2016 of Fifa’s former chief medical officer Prof Jiri Dvorak came while he was investigating the alleged state-sponsored doping of footballers in Russia. I’m sure Fifa will say the two are totally unrelated. Despite working on Fifa’s medical, anti-doping and injury-prevention programmes for over 22 years, however, he was given no notice or explanation of his removal.
Two weeks ago, it emerged that Swiss prosecutor Cornel Borbély, Fifa’s ethics committee chairman, was removed from his post in May in similar circumstances at the instigation of Fifa president Gianni Infantino. At the time – and I’m sure just as coincidentally – he was investigating the alleged role of Vitaly Mutko in the Russian doping scandal. Since then, Mutko, the former Russian minister for sports, has been banned from all future Olympic Games by the International Olympic Committee for his role in the systematic doping of Russian athletes involved in the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 Socchi Winter Olympics. Mutko has yet to be sanctioned by Fifa, of course.
Following the evidence
He is still president of the Russian FA and the head of the organising committee for the World Cup, so the inconvenience of following the evidence is pretty obvious. And the same could be said of investigating if Russian footballers were doped, because banning the hosts from their own World Cup is just not an option. It’s the greatest sports event in the world as far as I’m concerned, but the stench of corruption and cheating is inescapable around this one.
There was even a cloud hanging over the World Cup draw that took place earlier this month in Moscow. RTÉ televised the event live and I was on the panel alongside Darragh Maloney and Brian Kerr. We wondered beforehand if we should give any credence to former Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s claim that he knew of some major tournament draws being rigged in the past. Apparently hot and cold balls have been used in the past to fix the outcome. He’s hardly a credible witness in any event, but who knows what to believe?
We wondered how much time to devote to a report from Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE) that advised LGBT fans and those from ethnic minorities to keep their heads down if they travel next summer. Russia, of course, recently passed laws banning the promotion of homosexuality to young people. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises England fans of Asian and Afro-Caribbean descent to expect “unwanted attention” in public places, warning them to take care, particularly if they travel at night. Is this the stuff we should be talking about or not? It’s a football tournament after all.
Then there was the advice from Russian tourism chiefs to England fans planning to travel. In order to ensure their safety, they should stick to one pint before or after the game but no more. Once they were drunk, their safety could not be guaranteed. We also had news from Fifa that no Russian authorities would be involved in the collection, transfer or testing of urine samples throughout the tournament itself. I couldn’t work out if it was a positive or a negative that, in order to uphold the integrity of the drug-testing, the hosts would be excluded from the process. Nor could I work out how trustworthy the process would be if solely in the hands of Fifa officials. They’re hardly inspiring confidence with their response to the allegations about Russia.
In the end, we briefly mentioned them all and got on to talking about the matches, having watched Russia get drawn in the easiest group in the tournament. In fact, in terms of world rankings, there has never been a weaker group in the history of the World Cup. Their opening night opponent, Saudi Arabia, was the lowest-ranked team in the lowest-ranked pot. A one-in-24 shot and they nailed it. They then drew the second- and third-lowest seeds from the other two pots. Amazing good fortune for the hosts.
We didn’t even bother to explore the process which led to Russia being awarded the event in the first place. Sure that was years ago anyway.
Maybe nobody cares enough about this to even discuss it anymore. After all, racism and homophobia aren’t limited to Russia, and football isn’t the only sport to drag its heels when it comes to doping. Russia got an easy draw for sure, but sometimes that just happens. Even if proof was there that Mutko was involved in doping athletes in the past, it would make no difference to the quality of the football if Fifa decided to ban him. And who cares if Russia are doping? They’re hardly the first and they’re still bloody awful.
When I was a kid, the World Cup was the greatest thing I ever knew. Maybe I was always going to outgrow that feeling of thinking it was a magical event. Just like Christmas, perhaps, it’s never quite the same when you’re an adult. If a clean-up job was required in Fifa following Sepp Blatter’s departure, the work has yet to begin in any capacity. From everything we think we know about the values of the organisation, a link-up with Putin’s Russia seems about right. The integrity of the World Cup finals is just the latest casualty.