Mission accomplished. Gather up the buffet. Pack away the trinkets. Shred the manual of state-approved menacing platitudes. Sport has served its purpose here. And whatever it might choose to do from this point, all that really seems certain is that Vladimir Putin will not be listening.
Thank you, Fifa, Uefa, the IOC and our many commercial partners, for your invaluable help with the messaging. That is a wrap.
It is hard to know what to do with the news that Uefa plans to move the Champions League final from St Petersburg, Putin’s home town, as an act of censure for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is of course a necessary step, not least for security reasons, and beyond that for Uefa’s own troubled optics.
But the relocation of a final, as the bullets fly in Kyiv, is also a study in pointlessness. From here Uefa’s act of reputation management can only have any worth if all of us, from spineless governing bodies, to useful idiots of the media (present), to consumers everywhere, are willing to learn a very hard and very modern lesson.
The only dissenting voice at Fifa’s special committee meeting on Friday is likely to have been Alexander Dyukov, president of the Russian FA and chairman of the board at Gazprom, although even he is unlikely to care too much at this late stage. Schalke can remove the Gazprom logo from its shirts. Uefa can reconsider its sponsorship deal with the Russian state gas provider.
But the day has already moved on. The sportswashing has happened. Commerce, politics and televised sporting entertainment have served their purpose. Putin’s Russia has gained influence, soft power, and legitimacy. The home public has been placated. Sochi and Moscow have been used to dole out favours to Putin’s loyal lieutenants.
We are at a stage where taking the Champions League final away is like relying on a pointed clearing of the throat to deter the gang of masked men halfway up the stairs, coshes in hand. Putin is already raining death down on the people of Ukraine. He doesn’t care, at this stage, exactly where the football’s going to be played.
If sport can take anything from this horror it is that we now know beyond any doubt that this is all for real. That those who talk – so tiresomely: the game’s on! – about dictatorships and human rights are speaking from a place of real consequences.
That state of complicity starts, of course, at football’s utterly shameless Swiss headquarters. Gianni Infantino has already made his own oleaginous public statement, deploring violence generally without actually mentioning the word Russia or the name Vladimir Putin. “We woke up and we were shocked by what we saw,” Infantino crocodiled, maintaining an expression of textureless neutrality.
History will judge Infantino in the full glare of all his actions, his sycophancy, his cosying up to bloodstained despots. Rewind three and a half years and Infantino was at the Kremlin declaring that the world was now “in love” with Russia, and clasping Putin to his breast like a brother (also present at that meeting, in an odd twist, were Rio Ferdinand and Peter Schmeichel).
A year later Fifa’s president was back for the presentation of a Russian state medal. “You welcomed the world as friends,” Infantino told the same President Putin who is currently deploying the largest European land force since the second world war in a bloody and illegal invasion. “The world has created bonds of friendship with Russia that will last forever.”
Infantino may have shown himself to be a grotesque, morally invertebrate fool. But that lesson extends to almost all of us on some level: a lesson in something very hard and very cold, in a process that was initially obscure in its endpoint. Amnesty International was among those to introduce the phrase “sportswashing” four years ago. An article on this page in 2018 about Abu Dhabi, Manchester City and the Matthew Hedges affair used the word in inverted commas, and took time to explain where it came from.
At times it has looked like a diffuse, insidious propaganda programme. But there is no way now of hiding from the truth of where it can lead, a process in which many of us are co-opted to some degree. After Russia’s World Cup I wrote a book about travelling around the country, still high on the show and the interactions with everyday Russians, and hopeful there might actually be something in that connection, some kind of slow-burn glasnost. But guess what? Vladimir Putin really is a murderous imperialist dictator and the World Cup was a part of his machinery for power. The book feels like a kind of kompromat.
And Russia has been brilliantly effective at this on so many levels. Four years ago there were calls in the House of Commons for a World Cup boycott after the Salisbury poisonings. But even then it was hard to see what tangible effect this might have while Russian money and influence continued to sluice through the UK economy, legal system and politics.
In her book Putin’s People Catherine Belton writes of London’s financial and political centres rolling over in the face of Russian cash back in the mid-2000s when the capital became known as “Moscow-on-Thames”, the years of yachts and planes, peers on the company roll, the Heathrow “school bus” shuttle back home for the weekly boarding school set.
“By the mid 2000s London had gained a reputation as the world’s laundromat, washing hundreds of billions of pounds of dirty money,” Belton writes. “The way had been opened for the KGB to create a vast web of black cash, far larger and more sophisticated than the networks it had installed for black ops and influence peddling in the battle for empire of Soviet days.”
A Russian tycoon is quoted as saying: “In London, money rules everything. Anyone and anything can be bought. The Russians came to London to corrupt the UK political elite.” Is this true? If so, how true? The fact those in power in Moscow believe it to be so is probably enough for a start.
And yes, sport is simply small beer in this, with a habit of hugely overstating its role in world events. But such is its propaganda value we do tend to get a front-row seat, and to accept it rather guilelessly. I was there at Fifa House in Zurich in 2010 when Putin emerged, a little startlingly, from the back of the press conference hall to take questions after Russia’s successful World Cup bid: a small, ambling man, alone on that large stage, shrugging and looking bored, but radiating a weirdly compelling personal power.
It was almost comical, and certainly unnerving. But there can be no false innocence from here, no hope against hope, fingers crossed, for something real behind the platitudes. Ukraine has called for Russian clubs to be expelled from Uefa competitions and this should happen immediately, not just as a punishment but because the spectacle is repulsive and unsustainable in the shadow of war.
And from here on in we have been warned. We know, beyond any shadow of doubt, where this stage-management can lead. We know Vlad will not be returning Gianni’s calls, his anxious voicemails. That game has run its course. We have already been played.