OTL: Inside the battle against Russian influence at FIFA

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MOSCOW — Miguel Maduro thought he’d landed a dream job with FIFA in May 2016. Soccer’s governing body was a mess, reeling from a corruption scandal so big it led to more than a dozen U.S. federal indictments and the ousting of its longtime president, but that was precisely why the job thrilled Maduro.

The position, as chairman of FIFA’s independent governance committee, married two things he loved: soccer and public and private accountability. A Portuguese judge, academic and politician who had taught at Yale, Maduro seemed a perfect fit to ensure sweeping reforms.

And when new president Gianni Infantino assured Maduro his committee would receive unfettered autonomy, Maduro gladly accepted the job. “He seemed very committed,” Maduro says, “so I had no impression that he was a corrupt person or anything like that.”

The impression was short-lived.

Within months, Maduro says, Infantino urged him to throw out the FIFA rulebook and do him a favor. Infantino seemed desperate, and the desperation centered around Russia, host of the 2018 World Cup.

Vitaly Mutko, a member of FIFA’s powerful executive committee since 2009, was seeking re-election. Infantino didn’t want any problems, but there were two: Mutko had just been elevated to become a Russian deputy prime minister, and FIFA rules mandated that government officials may not serve on the committee; also, Mutko was implicated in perhaps the biggest state-sponsored sports doping effort in history — a scheme said to have included dozens of Russian soccer players.

Maduro and his colleagues saw no way Mutko should be allowed even to run for re-election. But Infantino and two top lieutenants seemed panicked about how the Russians might react to Mutko losing his spot, and they pleaded for an exception. The threat to Maduro was clear: Let Mutko be, or you’ll be out of a job.

Maduro was stunned. Did Infantino really want to go down this path? Did he really want to undermine and render hollow his promises of a new, reformed FIFA? To what end? For Russia?

“It shouldn’t be surprising to anybody that [Putin] would do everything he could to manipulate FIFA.” Mike Morrell, a former acting director of the CIA

Over the course of the past year, ESPN’s Outside the Lines traveled to Russia and several other countries to interview dozens of people — from Russian sports officials to critics inside the country; from the lawyer who led the probe into doping at the Sochi Olympics to officials with ties to FIFA; from experts on President Vladimir Putin to former U.S. intelligence officers. OTL also reviewed more than 1,500 pages of documents related to Russia’s World Cup bid and the doping scandal that has tainted the country’s entire sports program.

What emerges, as the World Cup nears kickoff in 11 Russian cities, is the story of FIFA and other sports governing bodies repeatedly kowtowing to Russia despite evidence of widespread doping, computer hacking and allegations of bribery of sports officials. And it’s the story of how those actions have fueled an unrelenting effort over the past decade to speed Russia’s return to sporting superiority, from the Olympics to soccer to a range of minor sports.

“Sport is incredibly important to how the Russian people view their role in the world, and the power of the state, and how the nation is doing relative to other nations,” says Michael Morrell, a former acting director of the CIA and an agency analyst for 30 years. “It shouldn’t be surprising to anybody that [Putin] would do everything he could to manipulate FIFA.”

IT HAS BEEN nearly three decades since the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union, but there remains in Russia a pervasive push and pull between past and present. The tortured dichotomy is nowhere more stark than in Red Square. There, directly across from Lenin’s tomb, is a sprawling, high-end, state-owned shopping mall that, when lit at night, looks like the entrance to Disneyland. And just off Red Square, near the Krispy Kreme on picturesque Nikolskaya Street, you can sidle up to a Stalin lookalike, who, for a handful of rubles, will gladly put his arm around you and pose for pictures.

There is undoubtedly a nostalgia for the muscular Russia of the Soviet era, an effort to recapture pieces of history — some that age better than others. Sport is one of those areas, and Putin seems to understand its ability to boost a nation’s self-esteem. Just after Christmas last year, the movie “Going Vertical” became an instant hit in theaters across Russia. It dramatized the story of the Soviet Union’s controversial victory over the powerhouse U.S. men’s basketball team at the 1972 Summer Olympics — a counter-narrative to America’s “miracle on ice” in 1980.

In the Soviet era, the country was an Olympic juggernaut, the world’s most dominant force. The Soviet Union competed in nine Summer Games beginning in 1952, winning the gold-medal count six times and finishing second the other three. Beginning in 1956, the Soviets had similar supremacy in the Winter Games, taking the gold count in seven and finishing second twice.

But after the breakup, Russia saw an Olympic freefall to match its politics and economy. The country hasn’t topped the gold medal standings in a single Summer Games, and it has finished progressively worse each year. The Winter Games followed a similar pattern. At the Vancouver Games in 2010, Russia fell to 11th in the gold-medal count with just three, one fewer than the Netherlands and Austria.

“The Vancouver Games were the final point of the destruction of Russian sport,” says Mutko, perhaps the most central figure in the country’s post-Soviet sports apparatus. “It was the end. Until 2006, Russia could not have been bothered with sports. In 2000s, we still had food shortages, we had a war in [Chechnya], so sports was simply abandoned.”

By 2007, Putin had begun the process of re-emphasizing sports. His in-person lobbying at the International Olympic Committee vote in Guatemala City was credited with helping to land Sochi the Winter Games. A year later, Putin named Mutko, a longtime political ally, as his minister of sport, tourism and youth policy.

From that point, Mutko was Putin’s chief sports protagonist. In hindsight, he appears an unlikely figure. During a two-hour interview with Outside the Lines, Mutko, speaking in Russian, told of growing up in a small village near the Black Sea, the only child of parents who worked in a lumber mill. “Even when my parents sent me off to summer camp each year, I would always cry,” he says, laughing. “I was a homebody.” He tells a romantic tale of riding on a boat as a young boy, watching the sunset and becoming excited by an announcement that the beloved Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, often visited the Black Sea. Mutko says he reflected on Pushkin’s work and soon dreamt of a career as a sea captain.

Mutko says those dreams lured him to school in St. Petersburg, but he ultimately moved into politics in the late 1980s, as national upheaval percolated. In the early ’90s, he met Putin and both worked under St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, whose efforts to boost the city’s cultural significance seemed to spark Mutko’s entry into sports.

“Sobchak was a big politician, a democrat, big-picture visionary who saw St. Petersburg as a very European city — an international center for banking and commerce,” Mutko says. “Sports and the social aspect was really important for this program.”

Mutko’s power and influence expanded through the next decade, along with Putin’s ascendance, particularly in soccer; he was elected president of the Russian Football Union in 2005, four years before he was named to FIFA’s executive committee, since renamed the FIFA council.

He says it was around that time when he pitched the idea of Russia bidding for the 2018 World Cup. It wasn’t an entirely easy sell, given that Putin is not a soccer fan, but Mutko was feeding the president’s broader mission — although Mutko insists Putin’s motives are misconstrued.

“They try to portray it in the West as if we’re trying to boost some sense of superiority,” Mutko says. “That’s not the case, that’s not what we do it for. Through these projects, we are simply trying to develop the country.”

Whatever the broader goals, Mutko had a clear mandate: Russia will rise again. There will be no more losing.

FOUR YEARS AFTER the Olympics in Vancouver, the host Russians dominated: They won 13 gold medals, 11 silvers and nine bronzes in Sochi, leading the overall medal count. Mutko told reporters, “When you believe in people, everything works out. The Sochi Olympics have shown that we are on the right track, and we are not going to veer away from this path.”

But within months, accounts emerged that it was all a sham.

Richard McLaren was hired by the World Anti-Doping Agency to investigate media reports of a brash, government-led effort to corrupt the Olympics. He was doubtful at first. The details seemed pulled from the pages of a spy novel: urine samples secretly shuttled through a mouse hole, Russian counterintelligence officers manipulating supposedly tamper-proof bottles, dirty urine swapped for clean.

“I’ve never been involved in an investigation where the entire ministry of government is involved in different phases of what’s going on,” says McLaren, an attorney and law professor at Western University in London, Ontario. “I thought, ‘This has gotta be fanciful.’ … I quickly was disabused of my disbelief.”

McLaren also quickly came to realize how high the plot reached. He compiled evidence that Mutko met several times before and during the Sochi Games to discuss the plan with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, who was then the head of Russia’s anti-doping lab. Emails tied Mutko and his deputy directly to the scheme, which implicated more than 1,000 athletes across 30 sports. McLaren ultimately would describe an “institutional conspiracy” that began at the Summer Games in London in 2012, continued through several international championships and culminated in Sochi.

The doping program also hit the sport most closely associated with Mutko. He was accused of personally covering up a doping violation by a Russian soccer player, and a story in Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper said McLaren had found 34 soccer players with possible connections to doping. McLaren’s report also described how WADA had seized more than 3,000 suspect samples from the Russian anti-doping lab, and McLaren later told the German television network ARD that 155 of those were from soccer players.

As McLaren and his team investigated, they began to fear they were being watched by the Russians. He also described efforts to hack into his computer system and having received a steady stream of hostile and sometimes threatening emails, most of which appeared to originate from Russia. Asked how seriously he took the threats, McLaren says, “When you’re dealing with the subject matter that I was dealing with, you don’t just toss them off lightly. You pay attention to what’s going on.”

When McLaren published his findings beginning in the summer of 2016, FIFA’s new president, Gianni Infantino, promised that his organization would look into the doping allegations and that Russia would face any “necessary actions and sanctions” before the World Cup.

McLaren waited nine months for his phone to ring. Finally, he says, he received a call from the organization’s anti-doping representatives. They wanted to meet. McLaren went to Zurich, walked through all his findings and offered to help FIFA investigate. But that was the end of the interaction. McLaren says FIFA never followed up, and, last month — nearly two years after the first of McLaren’s two reports was published — FIFA announced there was insufficient evidence that any current members of the Russian World Cup squad committed any doping violations.

“That surprises me,” McLaren says.

McLaren says his investigation revealed that in the hours before WADA representatives showed up in Moscow to seize more than 3,000 questionable samples, the Russians engaged in a night of swapping dirty urine for clean to protect several high-profile athletes. But he’s confident the Russians didn’t clean up all the cases.

“I think there were a lot of other dirty samples that were never swapped that are also in there,” he says. “And not many of them had been analyzed. But FIFA says they’ve analyzed the 155 that relate to their sport. I have to take them for their word.” Asked if he thinks FIFA has slow-played its investigation of possible doping by Russia soccer players, McLaren says, “Oh yeah.”

Three months ago, FIFA issued a three-page FAQ defending its responsiveness to the doping allegations. In it, the organization said it had been working closely with WADA, that suspicious samples had been re-analyzed and that “Sanctions cannot be imposed based on mere suspicions or limited facts.”

In a statement provided to Outside the Lines, a spokesman wrote that FIFA hadn’t been in contact with McLaren since last summer because “he had no more responsibility in the investigations, which were fully handled by WADA’s intelligence and investigation unit.”

Amid the doping scandal playing out, Putin promoted Mutko to deputy prime minister.

Mutko denies he had any role in doping Russian athletes — or, for that matter, that there was much doping at all by the host country. “We are convinced,” he says, “that Sochi was the cleanest and best Olympics that have yet taken place.”

MIGUEL MADURO IS a serious man who saw himself on a serious mission, and he wanted to believe Gianni Infantino.

As Infantino sought to manage reports of state-sponsored doping by the country that would host the first World Cup of his presidency, he also worked to reassure FIFA membership that he was cleaning up its mess. In May 2016, a few months after his election, Infantino addressed a group of soccer officials in Mexico City and promised to end the corruption. No more bribery. No more vote-swapping. No more obscene perks. “I can officially inform you here, the crisis is over,” he told the group, as if, just like that, he could wash away the series of revelations and indictments that toppled his predecessor, Sepp Blatter.

Infantino promised a hands-off approach with Maduro’s governance committee.

“What was stated to me at the time by President Infantino was that he was really committed to those reforms and to introduce a different philosophy and a different way of doing things at FIFA and soccer in general,” Maduro told Outside the Lines.

For the first few months, Maduro and his committee had no problems with Infantino. But then Mutko’s name was presented for re-election to the executive council. Despite McLaren’s scathing reports on Russia’s doping efforts, FIFA seemed determined to protect the Russian minister of sport. Maduro says he went to Infantino and let him know there was no way his group could approve Mutko’s candidacy.

Maduro says Infantino responded, “Oh, that’s going to create a problem. I told [Mutko] there wouldn’t be a problem.”

Maduro says he remembers the rest of the conversation unfolding like this:

Maduro: “What can I do about that? … And even if we will not decide on that [conflict-of-interest] basis, or if we decide there is no problem on that, then the second issue that we’ll have to decide is on the doping allegations regarding Mutko.”

Infantino: “He’s ready to talk to you and explain that there’s nothing. He has no involvement, there’s nothing.”

Maduro: “Well, you know the IOC is investigating.”

Infantino: “You will see. The IOC is never going to do anything.”

Maduro says that not long after Infantino pleaded his case, he was paid a surprise visit by two of Infantino’s top lieutenants — secretary general Fatma Samoura and audit and compliance committee chair Tomaz Vezel. Maduro says he was in Brussels when he received a call that they were flying from Zurich to see him. They agreed to meet that evening, but Maduro says Vezel called him ahead of the meeting, ostensibly to apologize for what was coming.

“I cannot say this in front of the secretary general. I wanted to apologize, but you know, the president asked me,” Maduro quotes Vezel as telling him.

At the meeting, Samoura did most of the talking, according to Maduro, and she pleaded to find a way to keep Mutko in place. He recalls that she came off as panicked in offering a range of comments:

“This is going to make it very hard on us. … Mr. Mutko is very afraid for his position in the government. … This will destroy the World Cup. … The Russians will make [Infantino’s] presidency hell. … This could be the end of the Infantino presidency, and if that happens, the reforms will be lost and bad people will come back to FIFA.”

But Maduro and his committee held firm on Mutko. And sure enough, a year after Infantino trotted him out in Mexico as a commitment to reform, Maduro was fired. He says he found out in a phone call from one of Infantino’s assistants the day before he was scheduled to fly to Bahrain for FIFA’s 67th Congress in May 2017.

“Fortunately they bought the flight, so I didn’t have to pay,” he says.

The FIFA spokesman defended the organization’s actions and disputed any suggestion Infantino and others exerted pressure on behalf of Russia. “FIFA has never put the competencies of previous committee members into question and has always respected their decisions. For these exchanges to be portrayed as undue influence is factually incorrect.”

Four months after he was fired, Maduro was called to testify before British lawmakers investigating problems at FIFA.


INFANTINO DIDN’T STOP at getting rid of Maduro. He also ousted the leadership of FIFA’s ethics committee, which had been looking into, among other things, Russia’s possible improper support of Infantino before and shortly after the election to replace Blatter.

In particular, Infantino came under scrutiny for at least two flights on private jets provided by Russian interests. In one case, he had a late-evening meeting with Putin in Moscow, then was shuttled to Qatar on a plane owned by a subsidiary of Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy company. Gazprom is an official partner of FIFA and a sponsor of both the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League.

In another instance, Infantino was provided the use of a private jet for a family visit to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican, according to a report in London’s Daily Mail; the plane’s tail number bore the initials of a company owned by Alisher Usmanov, a Russian oligarch who is a Putin ally and owns 30 percent of the Premier League team Arsenal. Usmanov also is a member of Russia’s World Cup organizing committee and president of the International Fencing Federation.

Three months after the purge atop the ethics committee, Infantino was cleared by the new leadership. FIFA’s new investigators concluded Usmanov had sold his plane two years earlier to Leon Semenko, another Russian businessman who is a close friend of Infantino. In its ruling, the committee wrote that after a “diligent” investigation over several weeks, “It was found that no violation of the FIFA Code of Ethics had been committed by Mr. Infantino.”

Shortly after Maduro was fired, three of his colleagues from the governance committee resigned in protest. One of them, Navi Pillay, a South African judge and former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, wrote in an email to FIFA that the association had violated “standards of good conduct” and exerted “undue influence” to keep Mutko in place. Another committee member who resigned, NYU law professor Joseph Weiler, filed a formal complaint to FIFA’s ethics committee.

“We were always wondering what was pushing Infantino,” Weiler told Outside the Lines, “because he could have simply said to the Russians, ‘Look, what can I do? I have this independent committee; our hands are tied.’ But in the face of everything he kept pushing. … To push us like that, to ask us to break the rules, there must have been tremendous pressure.”

“We were always wondering what was pushing Infantino. … There must have been tremendous pressure.” NYU law professor Joseph Weiler, one of three FIFA governance committee members who quit in support of Maduro

Asked why he thinks FIFA would have pressured Maduro and his committee, Mutko says, “I don’t know. I wasn’t present [at that meeting]. You’re telling me that, but I don’t know if he talked to him. Perhaps you know, but I don’t. I believe that if [Infantino] had said that, Maduro would have let me [run].” Mutko laughed.

Several sources with knowledge of FIFA told Outside the Lines that the battle over Mutko was driven by two dynamics: First, with the World Cup coming to Russia, Infantino needed to go all out to placate the host country; second, because the executive committee holds considerable sway, the Russians wanted to ensure they retained a seat at the table.

In the end, Russia kept its spot after all. Shortly before the elections, with Mutko disqualified and four other candidates in line to slide into four open spots, Geir Thorsteinsson, a former president of the Football Association of Iceland, withdrew his name from consideration. He was quoted saying that though he remained eligible, recently approved rule changes led him to conclude he shouldn’t run. Ultimately, Alexei Sorokin, the chief executive of Russia’s World Cup organizing committee, stepped into the spot slated for Thorsteinsson. He ran unopposed and Russia had its place back on the executive committee.

“When I said that this is a political cartel, it’s a political cartel,” says Maduro, the dean of the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Thorsteinsson told Outside the Lines his decision had nothing to do with the Russia situation. “No one ever asked me not to run,” he said.

IN THE THROES of the developing situation involving Mutko, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation issued a media release describing a phone conversation between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then-U.S Secretary of State John Kerry.

The release said that the two men discussed steps to finding a solution to the conflict in Syria and to “suppressing terrorist groups operating on Syrian soil in light of the recent accords reached during Mr. Kerry’s visit to Moscow.”

It seemed hardly unusual. But there was a strange, second piece to the conversation cited in the release.

“Minister Lavrov also told the Secretary of State all he thought about the provocative anti-Russian demands made by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency [USADA] to the International Olympic Committee [IOC],” the release read.

In the wake of the doping reports, USADA, along with dozens of other nations’ anti-doping agencies, had been pressing the IOC to ban the entire Russian team from the upcoming Summer Games in Rio. USADA was hammering away at the IOC, pointing not only to the state-sponsored doping scheme but also to the country’s efforts to intimidate and silence whistleblowers.

Back at the USADA offices in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Travis Tygart learned of the exchange through a tweet posted by the Russian news agency TASS. He was shocked, though not surprised. Tygart, head of USADA, had seen and faced a lot of hostility over the years. He had led the charge to expose Lance Armstrong as a drug cheat, prompting death threats, vicious emails and even efforts to hack the agency’s computer system.

Still, Tygart always had reasoned, those were obsessed or overzealous sports fans, devotees blinded by their Tour de France-winning hero. This, though, was different. This was a top-level government official, signaling something much more serious.

“These SOBs are coming for us in a big way,” Tygart says he thought when he first saw the tweet. “We kind of had a sense, I guess, of [Russia’s] willingness to try to take us down. You know, if it’s coming up and being reported that Lavrov is talking to Kerry about it, holy cow, it’s like that’s at the highest level.”

Within months, USADA, WADA and the IOC would be the victims of cyberattacks by the organization known as Fancy Bear — the hacker group linked to Russian military intelligence that tried to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In one case, the hacks captured the legal therapeutic use exemption information of more than 200 U.S. athletes, including Serena and Venus Williams and gymnast Simone Biles. Fancy Bear was trying to make the case that the exemptions reflected that Americans had cheated and were no better than the Russians. (Those exemptions are permitted, where appropriate, for documented medical needs.)

Today, Tygart says USADA continues to face efforts to hack its system. Along with more than 30 of its counterparts around the world, USADA has continued to press the IOC to take action against Russia, right up to the start of the Winter Games in South Korea a few months ago.

The IOC’s response has been mixed, reflecting its political complexities. At Rio, the organization rejected WADA’s recommendation to ban the Russian team. Finally, before the Pyeongchang Games — with three separate investigations effectively affirming a state-sponsored doping conspiracy in Sochi — the IOC acted. But a media release and public statements seemed carefully crafted to suggest a ban when, in fact, Russia was able to send one of its largest contingents ever; and though athletes couldn’t compete under their own flag, their uniforms were allowed to read, “Olympic Athlete From Russia.” The only clear losers were Mutko and a top assistant, who were banned for life.

At the Games, two Russian athletes tested positive for banned drugs, and after the Russian men’s team won the gold in hockey, the players flouted the “ban” by singing the country’s national anthem over the sounds of the Olympic anthem. Both acts were expected to undermine Russia’s hopes for reinstatement by the IOC.

Yet, within days of the Games ending — despite ongoing and strict suspensions of Russia by the International Paralympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s world governing body — the IOC fully restored Russia’s status.

“They wanted to bring Russia back into the fold,” McLaren says. “And that’s exactly what they did.”

Tygart says he fears the mixed messages from within the international sports community reflect who is in bed with the Russians.

“The worry is, at the IOC level, whether they’ve been bought or somehow compromised, because that’s how the Russians operate,” he says. “And if you’ve been compromised, your ability to hold others accountable, phew, it goes in the dirt.”

Russia’s reach extends beyond major sports organizations such as the IOC and FIFA, and no entity or sport seems too small. Nowhere has this dynamic been more acute than at the International Biathlon Union. The winter sport, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, has a niche following in the United States but is quite popular in Russia and throughout Europe.

In April, Austrian police raided the biathlon federation’s headquarters in Salzburg in the wake of tips generated by WADA’s investigative unit. Rodchenkov, the whistleblowing former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency, described how biathlon’s two top officials — president Anders Besseberg and secretary general Nicole Resch — were bribed, according to the French newspaper Le Monde, which headlined its story, “How Russia bought the International Biathlon Union.”

A classified report, according to the newspaper, said Besseberg and Resch were targeted specifically, and that Russia had infiltrated the biathlon union for years. They have denied the allegations. The paper quoted from a classified report that said, “The primary purpose of the corrupt practices is to ensure the protection of doping Russian athletes.”

One veteran Russia analyst, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Outside the Lines that the practice of infiltrating organizations to muddy any investigations is standard operating procedure for Putin’s government. “It becomes absurd after a while,” the analyst said. “They become part of the watchdogs, watching themselves.”

THIS PAST DECEMBER, Infantino and Mutko — still presiding over Russian football and the World Cup effort — sat side-by-side at a news conference in Moscow. The event was supposed to focus on the World Cup draw, but instead Mutko was hounded by questions about doping. The session came as the IOC was preparing to make its decision about whether to ban Russia from the Winter Games in South Korea, and Mutko was defiant.

“Nowadays, everyone is trying to make some kind of axis of evil out of us, just because we’re a great sporting power,” Mutko told reporters. “There never has been and never will be any manipulation in football around the national team.”

Infantino seemed nonplussed. Months after his prediction to Maduro that the IOC would not act, he said he was “very relaxed” about the looming decision regarding Pyeongchang.

Asked how IOC action might affect FIFA’s approach to Russia and the World Cup, he said, “The answer is simple, it will have no impact. We are speaking here about the World Cup, not the Olympic Games.”

Four days later, Mutko received his lifetime ban from the IOC and the Russian team was handed its quasi-ban for Pyeongchang. And yet, as Infantino promised, the decision seemed to have no impact on FIFA. All systems were go for the World Cup.

Last month, weeks before the start of the World Cup, there came a new wave of allegations: The German TV network ARD reported that questions remained about whether FIFA had analyzed a series of conspicuous urine samples from several players on Russia’s World Cup squad.

The report also added further allegations to how Mutko had protected Russian soccer players believed to have doped, saying he previously directed a series of suspicious samples to be buried by Russia’s anti-doping lab. The story quoted Rodchenkov saying, “I received order from Mutko that we don’t need positives in football.”

ARD, which had aired the initial report that began to lay bare Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme, also quoted an unidentified FIFA insider saying that “Gianni Infantino doesn’t want to get in trouble with the Russians.”

“This is more than obvious: If you say anything critical about Russia to Infantino, you are risking your career,” the source was quoted as saying. “It’s quite clear that Infantino wants to protect Russian interests to avoid putting off Russian sponsors.”

Two days later, FIFA issued a statement that Russia’s World Cup team was clean. The statement said, “Insufficient evidence was found to assert an anti-doping rule violation.”

By this point, Mutko had met his objectives and appeared to be moving away from Putin’s sports apparatus, for reasons that are unclear. First, Mutko temporarily stepped aside as president of the Russian Football Union, then days later he resigned as the head of Russia’s World Cup organizing committee. He insisted the decisions were his alone — moves made to avoid becoming a distraction — but that became harder to believe when he was later removed as minister of sport and given a new role as a minister overseeing construction and regional politics.


ON A SNOWY March day in Moscow, Mutko spoke somewhat wistfully to Outside the Lines about how he felt he had been treated by the international sports community.

“Look, as a human being, I can say all this is unpleasant,” he said. “I’m not 16 years old. When you invest all your health and time and life into football and other sports, you shouldn’t treat people like this. But since we’re an Orthodox Christian country, we assume God sees everything.”

He laughed: “We aren’t vindictive, but we don’t forget anything.” Then he paused before adding, “I’m just joking.”

On the eve of the World Cup, Vladimir Mozgovoy, the sports editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few opposition media voices in Russia, offered what was essentially a eulogy to the Mutko era of Russian sports. Not coincidentally, the piece spoke as much to Russia’s grand plans around sport as to the country’s new minister of construction and regional politics.

“Sport was charged with more than it could carry,” Mozgovoy wrote. “And [Mutko] was to some extent hostage of those exorbitant ambitions. … The doping scandal that is nowhere close to its end is just a consequence of the size of those ambitions. The role of Mutko specifically is still not clear to this day and is unlikely to become clear in the near future. I don’t want to underestimate his ‘achievements,’ but I believe the role of the main villain he got was more due to his title/position than the specific set of circumstances. When the World Cup is over, the ambitions will subside and the sport will be pulled back from the frontline.”

That might be true for soccer, but it does not appear Putin has any plan to retreat from the frontlines of his grander designs of using sports to shape Russia’s image both internally and internationally.

In an interview last year with Olympic historian David Miller, Putin hinted that Russia might make a run at hosting the Summer Games — completing a trifecta that would have Putin landing his country the world’s three largest sporting events. The IOC’s next open date: 2032.

Producer Arty Berko of ESPN’s Enterprise and Investigative unit, Associate Producer Tonya Malinowski and correspondent Katya Korobtsova contributed to this report.

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