By Andrew Warshaw
July 19 – Russia’s staging of the 2018 World Cup looks certain to come under increasing scrutiny despite a typically hands-off FIFA response to how the damning doping scandal that has rocked the sporting world might affect its flagship event.
FIFA promised “appropriate steps” after Monday’s explosive report into alleged systematic state-sanctioned cheating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi but made clear the bombshell claims that Russia’s government “directed, controlled and oversaw” urine sample manipulation to avoid cheating athletes being caught would have no direct negative effect on the World Cup.
“FIFA is confident that the Local Organising Committee and the Russian government are going to deliver an outstanding event for football fans two years from now,” said a brief FIFA statement in response to the headline-making scandal that threatens Russia’s participation in next month’s Rio Olympics.
But the fallout is bound to heap pressure on Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (pictured), who is also the country’s top official at FIFA and, more importantly, head of the local organizing committee for the World Cup. If, as has been reported, officials directly implicated in the World Anti-Doping Agency inquiry report are suspended by Russian authorities, that could potentially mean Mutko, sports minister since 2008, being taken out of the picture since he is head of the government ministry that allegedly controlled the manipulation of tainted Russian samples across summer and winter sports.
The investigation by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren did not provide evidence of precise involvement by Mutko to protect cheating athletes but pulled no punches quoting Russian whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory and now in hiding in the United States, as saying it was “inconceivable” that Mutko did not know about the whole doping system.
The latest scandal is the last thing World Cup organisers need with attention on and off the pitch now firmly on 2018 following the end of Euro 2016 in France. Demands to strip Russia as World Cup hosts seem bound to intensify if the nation is barred from the Rio Olympics.
WADA urged FIFA to take action following the role Mutko played within the system. “WADA urges the FIFA ethics committee to look into the allegations concerning football and the role played by this member,” said a statement.
FIFA acknowledged the WADA call but said its ethics committee was independent (a somewhat spurious claim given recent developments within world football’s governing body) “and only it can decide what actions to take in respect to this issue.
“For its part, FIFA will request from WADA all details concerning the individual cases of doping in Russian football that are referenced in the McLaren report. Once FIFA receives this information from WADA, it will take the appropriate next steps.”
Many will take the view that such steps must include a sanction since Mutko sits on the newly established FIFA Council. Anything other than an ethics inquiry will be seen in some quarters as another attempt by FIFA to protect its old guard. The WADA report said there was an attempt to cover up “at least one foreign (soccer player) in the Russian League,” according to email evidence obtained by the inquiry. The report alleged that 11 Russian footballers also benefited after failing dope tests.
The WADA report said that although Russian Deputy Sports Minister Yuri Nagornykh had decided which athletes would benefit from a cover-up, known as a SAVE order, Mutko appeared to make the decision with regard to footballers.
“The (chief investigator) is aware of at least one foreign footballer playing in the Russian League who had that benefit of a SAVE order,” it said. “That SAVE decision was made by Minister Mutko and not Deputy Minister Nagornykh.”
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