Red Card Rising

Putin World Cup

December 2010 seems like an eternity ago.  Nancy Pelosi was the Speaker of the House, Ke$ha had the number one song in the country and still hadn’t taken up lodging in rehab, and Brett Favre’s record for consecutive NFL starts ended.

And Vladimir Putin was officially not the Head of Government in the Russian Federation.  While those other three have yet to make any sort of comeback (although, who ever knows with Brett), Vlad has taken vengeance to a whole new level, even for Russia.  The conflict in Ukraine is reaching its 1 year anniversary and no end seems to be in sight.  With politicians arguing whether more guns would be more gas on the fire and negotiations falling apart faster than the Seattle Seahawks offensive playcalling, solutions are needed as the death tolls and damage continue to rise.

But The 500 isn’t here to delve too much into the politics of the ordeal.  Instead, we offer another solution, one with precedent and potential effectiveness: A Boycott of the 2018 World Cup.

Back in that December of 2010, it didn’t seem all that bleak.  The Obama Administration’s “Russian Reset” policy was only a year old and the pullback of US-NATO air defense systems in Eastern Europe was underway.  The Russian government cooperated with NATO’s ISAF mission allowing the transit of non-military supplies through Russian airspace and negotiations were ramping up between the US and Russian space agencies to cooperate for manned missions to the International Space Station.  Things weren’t rosy, but even bilateral US-Russian trade would jump from a Recession caused low of $5.3b to $8.3b just between 2009 and 2011.  And on 2 December 2010, it seemed that the post-Cold War goal for further integration into the international community hit another milestone when then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accepted the announcement of Russia as the host of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the globe’s premier sporting event.

Russian World Cup Fans

Since then, the football world has been inundated with whispers and shouts of corruption, bribery, and foul play surrounding the winning bids for Russia and Qatar’s selection for 2022.  And while the public sentiment that FIFA is assuredly one of the most corrupt international organizations since, well, whatever keeps the trains running in Russia these days, an independent investigation concluded in November 2014 of now wrongdoing with regards to the Russia and Qatar bids.  And given that Spain/Portugal and the United States lost out on the respective bids, so much for party time at the beautiful game.

But, corruption at a corrupt organization leading to a global event taking place in a relatively corrupt nation (Transparency International ranked Russia in the top 40 of most corrupt countries) shouldn’t be reason to put the sport itself in jeopardy.  Once the players take the field, banners exchanged and whistles blown, the fun of football should take precedent.  Will Germany’s still young, uber talented team become the first back-to-back world champions since the Pele Brazil teams in the 50’s and 60’s?  Will the USMNT continue to make strides and finally find that superstar despite only 2 wins in the last 8 years?  Would a non-European or South American team finally make the Finals?  Some stars are going to start hitting their twilight years (looking at you Ronaldo and Suarez), the cusp of their primes (Messi and Bale) and getting a second chance to take over the soccer world (a la Neymar and James).

Enter, Ukraine: Stage SNAFU.

Ukraine Cartoon

The Ukraine Crisis story has been well reported and covered over the past year since protests forced pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from office in February 2014.  Street riots, the Crimean annexation by Russia, separatists in the Russian ethnic majority provinces in Eastern Ukraine seizing towns and local control, the pouring of Russian heavy weapons along the non-existent border along Eastern Ukraine, the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines commercial flight by separatists using said Russian weaponry, and the slow destruction of the local landscape as a frozen (in many ways) conflict sets in.  Just take a look at these before and after images of the airport serving the major city of Donetsk in the eastern region.  While the 2008 Georgian incursion was a surgical strike, Ukraine has turned into a blood letting.

While Putin’s government denies any direct Russian involvement with the conflict, US and European leaders have kept their pulse on the situation while scurrying for solutions.  Some American policymakers have urged more armaments be given to the Ukrainian government and military, while European leaders, especially the vocal and oft turned to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have emphasized a negotiated end to the conflict.  But both solutions seem to lack the punch to bring an end to the conflict.  Pundits have argued the limitations of more arms to Ukraine as it will only escalate Russia’s current “non-efforts” of arming the separatists, while two rounds of negotiations hosted by EU leaders have led to cease-fires that ceased themselves.

So what about that boycott?

Here me out.  Obviously it wouldn’t be a UEFA boycott of the event since Russia is a member of that fine organization, so it would have to up to the individual countries to collectively decide on an embargo of the games.  An act on this level has happened before, with somewhat similar conditions.  In 1979, the Soviet Union ultimately invaded neighboring Afghanistan to support a communist government in that nation, prompting then US President Jimmy Carter to announce that the US would boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics being held in Moscow unless the Soviets withdrew.

Olympics Boycott

Obviously Carter’s deadline for a one month was not only ignored, the Soviets wound up in a protracted almost 10 year conflict in everyone’s favorite war torn region.  Still, Carter held up his end of the bargain and the US, along with 61 other nations, boycotted the Olympics in Moscow.  Thankfully, the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid were not effected and the US got its revenge in another fashion.  So while not effective in prompting the desired policy change Carter and the US were looking for, the effect on the games themselves resonated.

Flashforward to 2015.  While not the Evil Empire, the Soviets’ successor finds itself involved in another neighboring conflict with which the US and Europe would like to solve rather than drag on.  During the breadth of the Putin administrations, oil revenues have accounted for the boon to Russia’s economic growth and Russian government coffers.  But with the 2014 drop in petroleum prices and the implementation of sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy by Western governments, the Russian economy is starting to hurt.  Rising inflation and an unstable currency are starting to hit the Russian middle class hard and while political rebuke still hasn’t reached the Putin government, people’s pockets tend to speak louder than propaganda.

While a boycott of the 2018 World Cup alone wouldn’t lead to Russia completely changing its tune on the Ukraine issue, it adds another tool to deploy whether in terms of negotiations or outright damage to Russia.  The 2010 and 2014 World Cups generated $2.4b and almost $4b in TV revenue alone, respectively.  Estimates have put the Brazilian government’s tax haul from 2014 World Cup investments at $7.2b.  Obviously, there is a buck to be made by hosting the event.

And politically, the message that would be sent by US, European, and any other government that joins a boycott would carry an intangible element.  A moral boost to the Ukrainian people and government while countering Russia’s policy of aggressive behavior and reinforcement of the international norms the Russian government vociferously acts to undermine.

While the Putin government would undoubtedly be compelled to let the games go on, the abstention of the world’s largest TV markets in North America and Europe, as well as the absence of the world’s top football talent and national teams, would be more of a dealbreaker for FIFA.  If anything, that organization relies more on the World Cup’s revenue generation than the host nation and such a blow in quality and attention would undermine the already faulty foundation of FIFA.  Without wanting to wade into the waters of international politics, FIFA could be prompted to avoid a showdown of Cold War politics on the pitch by negotiating a new host for the games.  Being that the event is only 3 years away, any move towards a boycott would have to happen sooner, probably within the next year.  Still, many countries would jump to the opportunity to pick up the event’s pieces were Russia to lose the games.

For years, NATO nations have tried to find a semblance of relevance since the end of the Cold War, with defense budgets reaching rock bottom.  Why not a solution that requires not a single cent for a bullet or missile launcher?  Yes, the athletes and fans would suffer, but the World Cup in the end is a game and despite illegal tackles, shin kicks and even the occasional biting, the consequences pale in comparison to the threat of a protracted conflict on Europe and Russia’s doorstep.  Politically and morally, a boycott makes sense and all that is needed is the will to push through to the 90th minute.


Ukraine Soccer Fans



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