Russia throws open its doors to football’s gentry today, led by Britain’s own Gary Lineker, the co-host of the 2018 World Cup draw in Moscow
When Russia’s name was held aloft by Sepp Blatter, followed by that of Qatar, seven years ago, there was no sense then of the convulsions that would tear through the halls of Fifa and Russian sport as the investigations into institutional corruption played out.
Indeed, today’s World Cup draw takes place four days before the IOC rules on Russia’s participation in February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. Given the evidence provided by the explosive private diaries of Grigory Rodchenkov, the chemist who headed up Russia’s corrupt anti-doping operation at the Sochi Olympics, the Moscow leadership is hardly optimistic.
Though Michael Garcia’s investigation into the Fifa bid process for 2018 and 2022 found no evidence of corruption in the case of Russia, it is also the case that Moscow gave only limited access to Garcia’s investigative team and was also found to have destroyed computers leased by the Russian bid team.
If Russia escaped sanction in that instance, Fifa did not with Blatter’s corrupt regime being swept from power. Only one of the members involved in the vote that returned Russia and Qatar sits on the Fifa Council, Egyptian FA vice president Hany Abi Rida, and his position is under investigation.
Lineker was a critic of the Blatter regime and maintains his opposition to Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup. Indeed, during early discussions about his involvement tonight he sought assurances that Fifa was pursuing aggressive change and said he would not be silenced on Qatar.
“They are making lots of changes, a massive amount. There is hardly anyone left from the old guard. If Blatter had still been in charge I would not have done it,” he said. “You have a lot of new people and a lot of ex-footballers now. I have spoken to [Zvonimir] Boban who is quite high up in the hierarchy there and he’s very impressive, Marco van Basten is there, Figo, [Emilio] Butragueno.
“So they are making changes and it is only fair to give them the opportunity. I never had a massive problem with Russia hosting the World Cup. It’s a proper football country that has never had it. It’s the next one that I am not supportive of where that’s going, and they know that. They are absolutely completely happy for me to still have my strong felt beliefs and if I think there is something wrong I will continue to say so. Most of the old guard, the ones responsible for the corruption, are now thankfully either suspended or locked up or about to be locked up.
“I just asked how it’s changed, and they explained how the bidding process will work for the next one, that everything will be transparent and you have to announce who you are voting for. They are doing everything they can with new people so let’s hope it’s different. I am not naïve enough to think that all the problems will go away but I wouldn’t have done it if it was still the old guard with Blatter.”
Having outmanoeuvred England to win the 2018 vote, there is some irony in inviting one of English football’s favourite sons to MC the show. As a former Golden Boot winner and as the face of BT Sport’s Champions League coverage, not to mention Match of the Day, Lineker is a smart pick. And by maintaining a critical voice he allows Russia and Fifa to present themselves as a progressive force. Now that is magic.
“I have been involved in the World Cup all my life. I will be broadcasting it whatever. Even if Blatter was in charge I would be. I played in two, I won the Golden Boot, I have broadcast every one since and I’m doing the World Cup draw. It’s not a political statement in any way, shape or form. Guardedly, I am mildly confident that the changes get rid of the dreadful corruption we have had.”
And there is optimism, too, about England’s prospects. Lineker was a penalty shootout from contesting a World Cup Final in 1990. He suspects 2018 is too soon for Gareth Southgate’s England but detects a shift in mood around the team that might yet end their cycle of failure stretching back more than 50 years.
“I think we will be more competitive than in recent competitions because I think we’ve got better players than we have had.
“A lot will depend on the fitness of our stars and we have always tended to have one or two injured because we play so much and it’s quite dynamic football,” he said.
“We need Harry Kane, [Dele] Alli, John Stones fit and playing well. If we could get to the quarter-finals or beyond it would be a massive bonus.”
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