Obama dribbles near Putin’s penalty box

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 28, 2015 3:23 AM (UTC+8)
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Tackling in soccer may seem unromantic to the spectator and nowhere near as sexy as scoring a goal. Ronaldo and Messi are soccer stars, but ever heard of Cheick Tiote or Xabi Alonso? Unlikely. But, tackling is an art in itself – you need aggression while remaining a “clean” tackler. You need to be instinctual, and yet have masterly technique while closing the distance to the approaching dribbler — knees bent, feet shoulder-width apart, weight on the balls of your feet. And, most important, do have one hundred percent faith that every ball that enters your penalty area belongs to you.

If you see all these fundamentals of a basic tackling form in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement yesterday within hours of the graft probe and the crackdown on the Federation Internationale de Football Association [FIFA] surging in Zurich at the crack of dawn on Wednesday, do not be surprised. Moscow sees a menacing attack building up in the immediate enviorns of its penalty box and is preparing to tackle it.

The statement denounced the raid on the FIFA headquarters in Zurich on Wednesday as an “illegal extraterritorial application of U.S. laws” and an attempt by Washington “to stop trying to set itself up as a judge far outside its borders.” The statement made no reference to the Swiss government’s graft probe against FIFA officials in the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively.

But alarm bells are ringing in Moscow that the U.S. is demanding the extradition of the FIFA men in the dock and Washington no doubt would have a game plan in scaling the moral heights so ostentatiously.

Moscow anticipates that Uncle Sam may enter the Russian penalty box and Ivan will have to tackle him. Plainly put, the project to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia may be in jeopardy. Already, a team of powerful U.S. senators demanded in March in a formal appeal to FIFA that Russia should be stripped of the privilege of hosting the 2018 World Cup and an alternate host country be decided.

The senators cited that Russia should not be allowed to get “economic relief at a time when much of the international community is imposing sanctions” while “nearly a full year has passed since unmarked Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists began their dismemberment of Ukraine.” (here).

Actually, the U.S. lawmakers made no bones about the fact that their move was on geopolitical grounds. In the chronicle of Russian-American relationship, historically speaking, such moves more often than not are inspired from behind the scenes by the Administration in furtherance of foreign-policy objectives.

At any rate, no sooner than the U.S. lawmakers made their move, the FIFA boss Sepp Blatter made a dash for Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin. Following their meeting, Blatter remarked, “If politicians are not too happy that we are taking the world cup to Russia, I always say to them, “Well, you can stay home, and in Russia we will hold the biggest world cup ever yet.” (here).

That defiant, provocative, highly avoidable remark made in Putin’s physical presence may well cost Blatter his job. Make no mistake, the Empire has struck back.

What lies ahead? We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. The Swiss authorities have signaled that Russia could become their target, while seizing a trove of documents from the FIFA headquarters in yesterday’s raid which could be used as evidences in “criminal proceedings against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 Football World Cups.”

The FIFA spokesman already sounds unsure of the ground beneath his feet: “Russia and Qatar will be played. This is what is fact today. I don’t go into speculation about what will happen tomorrow.”

The caveat is with good reason, because once the FBI sleuths get after the FIFA officials extradited to the U.S., and grill them, a scandal is highly likely to erupt about the legality of the award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia.

America is not a great soccer-playing nation and corruption in sports is not something unheard of in the U.S., either. What would the U.S. gain by mooting a move to get the 2018 World Cup taken away from Russia?

There could be three main objectives behind an effort to humiliate Russia. First and foremost, Washington apprehends that the tournament will be exploited by Russia for burnishing its image in the Western world.

As soccer fans from Europe in the hundreds of thousands pour into Russia, the Western campaign to “isolate” Moscow against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis would suffer a fatal blow from which it will be difficult to salvage much. Russia would have conclusively buried the U.S. strategy to “isolate” it.

Two, to rub salt into the wound, Russia would also make a lot of money by hosting the World Cup tournament. This will be happening at a time when the U.S. aims to inflict economic hardships on Russia with the hope that it would compel the Kremlin to rethink the policies on Ukraine and seek a compromise with the West (on the West’s terms, of course).

Third, and most important, 2018 World Cup is a prestige issue for Putin personally, who has been directly involved in canvassing and securing the Russian bid to be the host country, and thereafter himself supervising the preparations for hosting the tournament. If it gets established that money has changed in the award of the tournament to Russia, it could tarnish Putin’s reputation.

Tarnishing Putin’s reputation is an obsession for the U.S. today. Any single day, the American media devotes a fair amount of time and attention to demonizing Putin. In the American calculus, discrediting Putin and somehow forcing him to step down in controversial circumstances would throw Russian politics into total disarray and destabilize the country.

It should not be overlooked that the next presidential election in Russia is due to be held in March 2018. Putin himself is circumspect on re-election, leaving the Americans guessing.

In plain terms, if the objective is to wound Putin politically, the time to do it is now and the way of doing it via the FIFA scam will be the most cost-effective. The American legal system will ensure that the high-profile trial will hog the headlines for weeks and months to come — and will bring much discomfort to Moscow. (See the U.S. Department of Justice charge sheet, here.)

Moscow is at a disadvantage in the forthcoming high-voltage propaganda war, because the U.S. will be claiming that it is on the “right side of history” and Russia simply cannot afford to be seen battling for the decrepit, venal FIFA officials in front of a world audience that is rooting for the crucifixion of the fatcats who brought disrepute to the world of soccer.

When Maradona joins the rambunctious crowd and says he is “enjoying” himself at the arrest of the FIFA officials and wants Blatter too to be carted away to prison, clearly, Moscow has a fight on its hands.

Without doubt, the U.S.-Russia tensions are once again building up. Moscow is right to anticipate that the attacker approaching the Russian penalty box harbors bad intentions.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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