Putin’s Placeman and FIFA Ethics

Putin’s Placeman and FIFA Ethics: riding conflicts of interest in Russia’s international sport strategy

Qatar has dominated the headlines in the FIFA corruption debate, since the 2010 decision to award two men’s World Cups at once, to Russia for 2018, to Qatar for 2022. Human rights issues, labour exploitation, the absurdity of the careless consideration of the bids, in terms of infrastructure and climate; all these have made Qatar an easy target. But let’s ask a little more about the World Cup that is a mere three years away. A first World Cup finals tournament in the world’s largest country, and its ninth most populous, for the first generation of its post-communist transformation, fits the FIFA globalizing mission of spreading the infrastructure of the game, confirming the reach of the game across the globe: “We go to new lands” as Blatter put it: “Never has the World Cup been in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East and Arabic world has been waiting a long time. So I’m a happy president when we talk about the development of football”. Blatter was talking to Reuters following the announcement of the decision in Zurich in December 2010. The Qatar decision soon dominated the public debate, interlinked as it was with the scandal of Qatari Mohamed Bin Hammam’s – Blatter’s long-term supporter turned rival – botched pitch at the FIFA presidency in 2011. Alongside this story, the success of Russia’s bid was relatively overlooked, scarcely commented upon. But there had been an air of inevitability about the Russian success, and the country’s President, Vladimir Putin, was speedily en route to Switzerland to mark the outcome after the announcement of the result. Putin had informed FIFA that he would not attend the presentation, so allowing the FIFA ExCo to make its decisions calmly without pressure. But he need not have worried; his Minister of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy, Vitaly Mutko, was there, in the capacity of voting member of FIFA’s decision-making committee. At the celebrating party Putin would reunite with Mutko, and also Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club in London. Russia had looked a strong favourite from early on in the process, and winning the 2018 event was a form of coronation, an affirmation of all the background work undertake over the previous few years.

This work had included the rapid career advancement of Vitaly Mutko, and his simultaneous entry onto FIFA’s global stage. As noted above, many have questioned the processes whereby Qatar secured the vote to host the 2022 event, but less attention has been paid to the Russian triumph in the lobbying stakes, and at the nature of Mutko’s contribution to this triumph. Mutko was born in 1958 in the Krasnodar Territory in the extreme west of the country close to the Black Sea. He attended the Water Transport Institute in Leningrad, and graduated from the River Vocational College, taking too a qualification by correspondence from the Law Department of Leningrad State University. He worked as a technician on shipping vessels, and entered politics as chairman of the trades union committee of the River College, moving into public administration from 1983-1991 as “instructor, section head, secretary, chairman of the Kirov regional Council of People’s Deputies”, becoming head of the region’s administration. This proved an effective platform for political elevation, particularly in the transformative phase of the cooling of the Cold War, and from 1992-1996 he was Deputy Mayor of St Petersburg, and chairman of the city’s Committee on Social Issues. Mutko also moved into the football world in 1993 as president of Zenit St. Petersburg Football Club, soon winning the national cup trophy and coming third in the national championship. His career horizons were now about to broaden, and his summative biography as published by the Russian Government leaps to the formation of the Russian Football Premier League in 2001, “at the initiative of Mutko, who is a member of the Executive Committee of the Russian Football Union, President of the Russian Football Premier League and Vice President of the Football Federation of St Petersburg and North-West Russia”. A year on, he diversified into committee work on Russia’s Paralympic Committee, from 2002 – and apparently up to the present, thirteen years on – chairing committees and charities dedicated to helping people with mental disabilities. In 2003 he became a member of the Federation Council of Russia’s Federal Assembly, representing the St Petersburg government.  On this national basis, in 2008 he was appointed Russia’s Minister of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy; and in May, 2012, reappointed “Minister of Sport of the Russian Federation by a presidential decree”. But what this potted history of Mutko’s career, derived from central governmental documentation, does not include are several crucial facts, relating to his sets of interest across, first, the political terrain in his country and his increasing profile and involvement in FIFA; and second, within the shifting forces of political economy in the Russian Federation as they bear upon sport’s place in those transformative forces and processes. 

First, in 2009 Mutko became a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee (ExCo). The following year, he could participate in the run-in of the Russian bid and its presentation to FIFA in December 2010, when the World Cup 2018 was won. The Russian Minister could back his country’s bid, participate in the bidding process, celebrate with Putin, in between times casting his vote as an ExCo member for whichever bid he considered to be the most deserving choice. A year and a half on from the FIFA vote his President’s decree would confirm him in his ministerial position, focusing exclusively on sport. This has been an important time for Russian sport, winning and staging the Sochi Winter Olympics in January 2014, also a convenient launch-pad and veil for Putin’s militaristic adventures in the Crimea and the Ukraine; and staging the country’s inaugural Formula 1 event, also in 2014. In that same year Mutko, by now also chairman of the Russia 2018 Local Organizing Committee for the World Cup, could announce to the world that the 2018 World Cup logo was inspired by “Russia’s rich artistic tradition and its history of bold achievement and innovation”. (http://rt.com/news/200231-russia-world-cup-logo/). FIFA president Blatter was there of course at the logo launch, adding that the logo reflected the “heart and soul” of the country. Mutko was captioned, for the national and global audience anticipated for this event at the country’s International Space Station, and projected onto the Bolshoi Theatre during primetime evening television, as a FIFA ExCo member, as much Blatter’s colleague as Putin’s.

Second, as president of the Zenit St. Petersburg Football Club from 1993, Mutko was an agent of not just the rise to sporting prominence of the club, but of its economic transformation. In 1999, Gazprom, the largest natural gas extractor in the world, and in many respects the international business arm of the Russian state, became the club’s official sponsor, completing a financial takeover in 2005; in 2012, Gazprom became both a sponsor of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea Football Club in London, and an official partner of the UEFA Champions League (in 2005, Abramovich had received $13billion for his Sibneft oil shares from Gazprom); from 2015, for an initial three-year period preceding and including the Russia 2018 World Cup, Gazprom is an official FIFA partner. The FIFA-Gazprom deal was signed on 14th September 2013. At the signing ceremony, FIFA president Blatter and Gazprom chair Alexei Miller (a former Deputy Minister of Energy in the Russian government) were seated, looking down studiously at the historic paperwork; behind them were Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, and his sport minister Vitaly Mutko, presumably in this case in his capacity as a minister of state of the country, rather than as FIFA ExCo member.

Might the question of ethical accountability, or the issue of conflict of interests, have been raised as Mutko worked the national and international networks of global football’s financial and administrative worlds?  In the years building up to the December 2010 decision and beyond, supported as he was at the highest level by a figure whose practice and demeanor are those of a ruthless dictator rather than an elected public official, Mitko appears to have waltzed his way through the committee rooms and corridors of power, the ceremonies and the deal-making moments, choosing his status as befits the latest challenge or promotional context? At no point is there any trace of ethical transparency or accountability, or of conscience-threatening reflections. When Mutko became a member of FIFA’s executive committee he could have put the FIFA ethics policy and procedures on the table and declared his intent to avoid any conflict of interest between his political priorities, his loyalty to Putin, and his role as sport administrator and FIFA committee member. But that would have surely led to his neutrality in the 2018/2022 voting process, and more complete and honest declarations of interest related to his multiple roles and positions.

In the 2009-10 edition of FIFA’s Code of Ethics the ethical consequences of undeclared interests are plainly laid out.  The preamble is unequivocal: “FIFA is constantly striving to protect the image of football, and especially that of FIFA, from jeopardy or harm as a result of immoral or unethical methods and practices”. (p.3). Here’s an extract from section 5 on conflicts of interest:

"1. Before being elected or appointed, officials shall disclose any personal

interests that could be linked with their prospective function.

2. While performing their duties, officials shall avoid any situation that could

lead to conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest arise if officials have, or appear to have, private or personal interests that detract from their ability to perform their duties as officials with integrity in an independent and purposeful manner.

Private or personal interests include gaining any possible advantage for himself, his family, relatives, friends and acquaintances.

3. Officials may not perform their duties in cases with an existing or potential

conflict of interest. Any such conflict shall be immediately disclosed and

notified to the organisation for which the official performs his duties.

4. If an objection is made concerning an official’s existing or potential conflict

of interest, it shall be reported immediately to the organisation for which the

official performs his duties.

5. The deciding authority of the relevant organisation shall decide on such

conflicts of interest."

(FIFA Code of Ethics, 2009 edition, p.6)

As Mutko looked to his future, no doubt commended by Putin on his good work in getting Gazprom into one of the most prized sponsorship deals in world sport, perhaps his mind turned to the sixth section of FIFA’s code, in which you are asked to think about your conduct towards government and private organizations: “In dealings with government institutions, national and international organisations, associations and groupings, officials shall … remain politically neutral, in accordance with the principles and objectives of FIFA, the confederations, associations, leagues and clubs, and generally act in a manner compatible with their function and integrity”. (p.6)

Mutko’s dealings as Russian politician, though, on his journey towards his membership of the FIFA ExCo, have been as far removed from political neutrality as one could imagine. Gazprom chief Miller observes: “Gazprom is not only the largest gas company in the world, but also one of those most passionate about football”. So passionate that on the back of the winning bid for the 2018 World Cup, Gazprom would be building a brand new stadium for Mutko’s old club Zenit (projected costs €1.1billion), also the football club of the city of Putin’s origins.  In these patterns of interlocking interests we can begin to understand Gazprom’s “passion”, fuelled by the links at local, regional, national, and international level that it can secure through the networks and deal-making facilitated by the likes of the Russian president and his placeman, and fuelled by the FIFA hierarchy’s ethical neglect of the burgeoning success of the Russian Federation’s sporting ambitions.  The Qatar controversy provided a convenient veil to the Russian delegation’s celebrations in Zurich in 2010, as Putin slipped out of Switzerland pleased with the work of his placeman, confident in the knowledge that the bidding process and its outcome could be justified in the FIFAspeak of Blatter as the latter burbled on about his own happiness at these “development of football” outcomes.

AT, April 17th 2015