Midfield General

Blame the Foreigner

In soccer, as in politics, plenty of Russians think the root of all evil lies in the West.

MOSCOW — Russia may be having a great year for territorial expansion, but its national teams are having a stinker. After the hockey squad flamed out at the Olympics despite playing on home ice, the soccer team crashed out of the World Cup without a win. Yet there is a silver lining to this sporting cloud: though their teams' failures were disheartening, Russians can still find comfort in the overarching notion that Mother Russia knows best.

Russia's two tepid draws and one loss in the group stage have led to soul-searching and finger-pointing in Russia soccer circles. Fortunately for Russian self-esteem, most of those fingers have pointed at the team's head coach, Fabio Capello. The 68-year-old Italian, who in 2010 coached England's World Cup team, was reportedly the highest paid coach at the World Cup, earning $11,235,210 -- an annual salary 763 times greater than the average Russian's, according to Forbes.

The foul-mouthed leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, called Capello a "thief" and said he should be summoned to the Duma to explain Russia's mediocre performance. Russian media outlets also have reported that Capello will, in fact, be called into the Duma in October to outline his plan to ensure there no is repeat in 2018, when Russia hosts the tournament for the first time. Other lawmakers have said Capello should forfeit his salary.

Such is life for imported talent in Russia. When speed skater Viktor Ahn, who used to represent South Korea, won gold for Russia in Sochi, the home crowd applauded more loudly than they had for the country's homegrown figure skaters. Russians also hailed Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman, as a hero after he led their soccer team into the 2008 European Championships, where it reached the semifinals. And Capello, who stars in a Coke commercial on Russian television and is arguably more recognizable than any of his players, became Mother Russia's favorite son for leading the team into the 2014 World Cup.

Indeed, Ahn, Hiddink, and Capello -- who blamed his team's elimination on a laser pointer directed into the eyes of goalkeeper Igor Akinfeyev just before Algeria scored an equalizing goal -- are just a few of Russia's many foreign commodities. Much like imported stainless steel appliances or one of Moscow's thousands of Audis, Capello is a coveted European good considered to be better than any homegrown equivalent. Indeed, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has looked abroad for its industrial technology, high-quality consumer goods, and even soccer coaching talent at the expense of developing its own.

But Russia's ties to its Western imports often resemble a love-hate relationship. In the wake of elimination, Russian players have received significantly less criticism than their Italian coach. Akinfeyev fumbled the ball on a benign shot during his team's opener against South Korea that ended 1-1, but Russian media exonerated the goalkeeper after he publicly apologized to the country for the blunder. None of the other players, all of whom are based in Russia's domestic league, has received much reproach. Yet Capello, who speaks to his players through an interpreter, has not yet been forgiven. The unspoken reason is his passport. The consensus is a Russian could have done a better job -- and for less money.

This mix of chauvinism and protectionism, fomented by Kremlin-friendly state-owned media outlets, has reinforced a prejudice that has grown stronger in Russia since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine: In Russia, the Westerner is to blame.

In soccer, still regarded as somewhat foreign despite the sport's long history in the country, this is an easily applied prejudice. Russia's inhospitable climate clashes with the image of a lush soccer pitch, making it more acceptable, in theory, to call upon foreign expertise -- and then reject it if things go badly.

But while foreigners have comprised the national soccer team's coaching staff for nearly a decade, Russia has never had a foreign hockey coach. Even after coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov was fired following the home ice embarrassment at the Sochi Olympics in February, there was no outcry for Russia to look for a Canadian replacement. Yet even in hockey, Russia's de facto national sport, the country has still managed to make Westerners the scapegoats for its own misfortunes.

Indignant Russian parliamentarians and social media users blamed American referee Brad Meier, who officiated Russia's game against the United States in Sochi, for the team's failure. Because the net was off its mooring, officials disallowed a goal that would have given Russia a 3-2 lead with fewer than five minutes left in a round-robin game. The United States went on to win in an eight-round shootout. Because of the loss, Russia had to play a quarterfinal game against the gritty Finns, who eliminated the hosts under the reproachful eyes of their compatriots. Meier, who was viewed as a biased, Russophobic referee, was an easier target than a poorly constructed team of puck-hogging stars.

Amid Russia's annexation of Crimea and ongoing clashes in eastern Ukraine, the Sochi Games already seem like a distant memory. And Russia's gold medal at the World Hockey Championship in Minsk in May has healed Russia's bruised hockey ego.

The bruises may not heal so easily in soccer, as Capello is contracted through 2018. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko -- a former head of the Russian Football Union (RFU) -- defended his imported coach, saying Capello's role in getting the team into the World Cup was a victory in itself. But the reality is that Capello's contract specifies a stiff financial penalty against the RFU if he is fired before the 2018 World Cup.

Committed to its foreign coach for another four years, Russia will be looking to strengthen the development of its young players at home rather than relying on the academies and training programs of prestigious clubs abroad. If things go well in 2018, there will be plenty of Russians ready to take the credit. If they don't, there will still be one Italian left to take the blame.

Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

A Game Rigged From the Top Down

Match-fixing by soccer players is the least of the sport’s problems.

There's a match-fixing scandal at the World Cup! Or maybe there isn't. Seven of Cameroon's players are under investigation for throwing their match against Croatia. But perhaps the whole thing is a complete fabrication. Whatever really happened, the story was plausible enough to get some legs. And that's the problem.

Match fixing, both actual and speculated, is a specter that's always stalked soccer. Whether it was Matt Le Tissier trying to kick the ball out of play on purpose, or Singaporean syndicates sending unexplained payments to Finnish teams, there is plenty of evidence that match fixing exists. It may even have affected the World Cup in 2006.

The World Cup incident involved the Ghanaian team, and indeed the specter -- whether or not there's any truth to the Cameroonian story -- has settled recently and rather definitively over Africa.

It's always tempting to look at match fixing as a bad apple scenario: Greedy players want more money and will do anything to get it. Yet if recent history tells us anything, that couldn't be further from the truth. Several of the latest match-fixing allegations have been focused much higher up the food chain.

One report suggests that the president of Ghana's football association, Kwesi Nyantakyi, agreed to have his national team play in fixed matches. (He disputes the claim.) Indeed, the confessed match-fixer Wilson Raj Perumal -- the original source of the Cameroonian accusations, which he has since recanted -- claims he's made a career out of finding national teams amenable to playing in games that were fixed. He also asserted that he was responsible for sending Nigeria to the World Cup in 2010. Corroborating some of his claims, The New York Times found widespread evidence of match-fixing in friendly games, often involving referees, in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It's easy to see why cash strapped countries -- and not only African ones -- might make appealing targets for match-fixers looking to exert their influence. That's why the recent rash of money-related clashes between football associations and players is doubly concerning. Cameroon threatened to go on strike if they weren't paid the World Cup money promised them, a negotiation which ended with them arriving at the World Cup a day late. Just days before playing their third World Cup match, Ghana threatened to quit if their association didn't stump up what they were owed; the government literally flew the team a plane full of cash. Nigerian players boycotted a practice session after not being paid a bonus they were promised. And these were hardly the first times that Africa's biggest stars have had to resort to shaming their countries publicly to get paid. In 2012, for example, Togo's Emmanuel Adebayor threatened to retire from international football if he and his teammates weren't paid following a friendly with Morocco.

It's very difficult to say anything definitive when it comes to money issues in soccer. It's a game of attempting to derive answers from second- and third-hand reports, then figuring out the truth behind supposed revelations by convicted match-fixers. But listen to the rumor mill long enough, and one thing becomes abundantly clear. While players trying to make a quick buck might be challenge the game's integrity from time to time, that problem is dwarfed by the threat of institutional corruption. All too often, players aren't the problem -- they're the victims.

Match-fixing is a much more pernicious problem when viewed through that lens. If the problem were simply players taking money to throw games, then the solution would simply be a matter of better policing. If, however, the problem is more endemic -- if it swirls around greedy executives and cash-strapped footballing programs in poor countries -- then we're talking about a problem bigger than policing. Now we're talking about a system that may be more fundamentally broken than anybody wants to believe.

FIFA talks a good game about protecting the integrity of the sport. But talk is cheap. What's needed is new infrastructure and policy reform. What's needed is for FIFA not only to support policing actions against players, but also to insulate players from being exploited by their own allegedly corrupt executives.

Of course, to do that FIFA would have to acknowledge that corruption to begin with, and that's a dangerous game. Once you start seeing corruption it can be pretty hard to stop. It's not at all surprising that a FIFA executive committee currently being investigated for corruption relating to Qatar's 2022 World Cup bid wouldn't want to make accusations against their own constituents. After all, there's that saying about people who live in glass houses.

So for now, it doesn't look like much will change. Players will continue to be accused of taking bribes, often without getting paid for their services, and match-fixing will continue to hover around the edges of the world's biggest soccer stage. Rumors will swirl, and people will continue to comb through the mists looking for hints of which games might not be on the up-and-up. All the while, the people with the power to change it -- to insulate and protect the players -- will claim that they are doing all that they can, while likely contributing to the problem. There's just enough plausible deniability to go around. And until that's gone, nobody really has any incentive to do anything.

Phil Walter / Getty Images Sport