In stark contrast to England, Russia appeared profoundly unqualified to host a monthlong tournament expected to draw well over three million spectators. For starters, Russia didn’t have a great soccer tradition; its team hadn’t even qualified to play in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, thanks to an embarrassing loss to Slovenia.
.. More important, it didn’t have adequate stadiums or other infrastructure, and since it was already going to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, there were serious questions about how it could afford to build what was required.
.. To most observers, Russia didn’t seem like a serious threat to England’s hopes, but Mr. Steele’s confidential sources told a very different story.
Mr. Putin, then serving a four-year term as prime minister, saw hosting the World Cup as a vital way to project his country’s power, and his own, around the world. He was determined, sources said, to win the bid at any cost.
.. Russian government officials and oligarchs close to Mr. Putin had been enlisted to push the effort, cutting shadowy gas deals with other countries in exchange for votes, offering expensive gifts of art to FIFA voters and even dispatching Roman Abramovich, the billionaire who owns the London-based Chelsea Football Club, to South Africa to pressure Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president.
.. Multiple generations of FIFA administrators were brought down, accused of collectively taking hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes.
.. Court records from the case run into the thousands of pages, and prosecutors spent weeks laying out every tangled intricacy of their digging in a six-week criminal trial in federal court in Brooklyn late last year. But Russia, strangely, seems to have been completely absent from any of it.
.. An attempt by FIFA itself to audit the bid after the fact was stymied when it was discovered that a football foundation linked to Mr. Abramovich, Mr. Putin’s oligarch pal, destroyed the Russia bid team’s computers.
.. The country has somehow found a place at or near the center of nearly every geopolitical conspiracy, most of them considerably more insidious than where a quadrennial soccer tournament should be held.
.. On June 14, the Russian national soccer team will square off against Saudi Arabia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for the opening match of the 2018 World Cup. Lacking talent in midfield, a viable scoring threat, an organized defense or a well-regarded coach, the Russian squad hasn’t had any notable success since 2008 and qualified this time because host nations get an automatic spot.