Opinion: FIFA Should Strip World Cup from Russia

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FIFA, world soccer's tainted and maligned governing body, is still called FIFA. Yet it wants you to believe it is different now, reformed, rebuilt and far removed from the regime of corruption that led to the long-overdue downfall of former president Sepp Blatter.

If that is the case, soccer's latest powerbrokers have a simple way to prove it: Strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup.

Last week brought a fresh reminder of the depths Russia's odious sports system plumbed in its secretive, subversive modern war on fair play. A second investigative report by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren detailed even more extraordinary plots in which more than 1,000 Russian athletes were fed banned performance-enhancing drugs, with the subsequent positive doping tests fabricated or tampered with to foil the system.

And while the narrative of Russian drug cheating has primarily revolved around the Olympics and Paralympics, soccer is also one of 30 sports named. In the case of the "beautiful game," the doping involved members of a Russian youth team, another unsavory example of what steps the state will take to facilitate cheating.

Controversy has swirled around the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 version in Qatar since they were simultaneously awarded in 2011 amid accusations of bribes and vote buying.

Those claims have not gone away, yet neither has FIFA acted to revoke Russia's hosting privileges. It must do so now.

"Holding state-sponsored doping to account is exactly what needs to happen," Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, told Agence France-Presse last week.

He's right, and there are not many ways to do so. Banning athletes is one measure, but removing the right to stage an event such as the World Cup sends a more powerful message.

Remember, this was something that came from the top. State sponsored means just that. Whether the edict to make doping part of policy came personally from Vladimir Putin or not, his ministers and underlings were part of the process by which a government used its sovereign powers to poison the bodies of its athletes to make them perform better. Then, borrowing straight from the Cold War, outwitted a system designed to enable clean sport using contrived samples and secret holes in laboratory walls.

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. 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.

Whether now, with McLaren's double dose of humiliating revelations, Russia would seek to help its soccer players dope at a World Cup is hardly the point. It doesn't seem realistic -- soccer players spend much of the year with their club teams and the sport does not lend itself to doping practices. Yet neither did it seem feasible that a government could launch a widespread campaign to ensure it topped the Paralympics medal table. But Russia did so.

At the very least, Russia has lost the right to be granted the benefit of the doubt.

There were problems with the bid to begin with, what with Russian soccer suffering from a lingering and ugly racism problem, a shortcoming the voters in 2011 decided to overlook or were paid to do so.

It is time for a change of tack. In all honesty, it is long overdue.

FIFA has a new man in charge, Gianni Infantino. He wants us to believe he is a force for good, and he has made a solid start. But he hasn't shown a commitment to ensure that forces for cheating and corruption will be dealt with in the harshest way possible. This is his opening.

If Infantino decides to lead a charge to end Russia's hosting plans, what about the logistics? That will be used by many as a reason not to shift venues, with the tournament 18 months away.

Given that World Cups are typically awarded at least seven years ahead of time in order to allow the necessary preparations, such a window for a replacement host to get ready would be tight.

So what is more important, convenience or propriety? In truth, there are a number of viable candidates that could stage a World Cup on short notice. The event requires a minimum of 10 world-class stadiums and sufficient tourist and travel infrastructure to cope with a vast influx of fans.

France, which hosted the European Championship this year, could do it. Brazil hosted the World Cup two years ago, staged the Olympics in Rio this summer and could do it again in a pinch. Germany has the stadiums and the requisite public networks. So does Japan, England, China, Australia and, yes, the USA.

Infantino is making loud noises about making the World Cup bigger, wanting it increased to 48 teams within the next couple of cycles. Bigger is nice, but better is infinitely more admirable.

Bolder, the kind of boldness needed to tell Russia the game is up, well, that would tell the world that the new FIFA is truly about reform.

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December 13, 2016


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