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Wednesday, 13 June 2018 | MYT 11:55 PM

Did Russia Steal the World Cup?

LONG BEFORE ANYONE HAD HEARD OF CHRISTOPHER STEELE OR A ‘PEE TAPE,’ THERE WAS AN INVESTIGATION INTO FIFA CORRUPTION.

In the spring of 2010, Christopher Steele, a former British spy with a shock of graying hair and a quiet, understated manner, received some alarming news: Vladimir Putin, a lifelong ice hockey fan, had taken a sudden interest in soccer.

This was years before Steele compiled his now famous dossier on Donald Trump, with its references to clandestine meetings in Prague and, of course, “the pee tape.” In 2010, Steele, regarded among those who knew him as a serious and levelheaded MI6 officer, had only recently retired and opened his private intelligence firm in London. He might have reasonably expected to be embarking on an uneventful, if lucrative, second career. But the story of what happened next would profoundly affect his and countless others’ lives, foreshadowing the Trump investigation and the shadowy role Russia plays in the modern world.

Among Steele’s first clients was a group of wealthy individuals and corporations supporting England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. The tournament hadn’t been held in England since 1966, and the country’s soccer-mad populace was desperate to do so again. England invented the modern-day game in the 19th century and, at the outset of the 21st, believed it was uniquely poised to host, with dozens of world-class stadiums, hotels, highways and airports ready. The British government chipped in £2.1 million ($2.8 million) of the bid’s more than £17 million total cost, and international celebrities including Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron, then the prime minister, promoted the effort.

Steele had been hired, in large part, because of his expertise in Russia, one of six countries vying for the right to host the tournament. In the early 1990s, he had worked undercover in Moscow, and he maintained extensive contacts in Russian government and business circles. His mandate in the spring of 2010 was to find out anything he could about the competing bid. He was no stranger to Russia’s playbook. When it came to pursuing national objectives, the country had few if any compunctions about employing whatever means — collusive, corrupting, scandalous — might be necessary. And on its face, it was clear the Russian bid was going to need a lot of help.

In stark contrast to England, Russia appeared profoundly unqualified to host a monthlong tournament expected to draw well over 3 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. The International Federation of Association Football, or FIFA, the Swiss-based nonprofit that runs the World Cup and oversees world soccer, ultimately rated Russia’s bid riskiest for operational considerations among other contestants for the 2018 tournament.

To most observers, Russia didn’t seem like a serious threat to England’s hopes, but Steele’s confidential sources told a very different story. 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.

Over the next few months, Steele collected a growing pile of intelligence suggesting that Russian government officials and oligarchs close to 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. (A spokesman for Abramovich told The Sunday Times that there was nothing “untoward” in his involvement in the Russian bid.)

The retired spy handed his findings to his clients supporting the English bid, who had been swaggering through the campaign with blithe optimism and self-confidence. But in July 2010, five months before FIFA would hold its vote on where to host the 2018 World Cup, Steele also passed the information on to another party he thought might be interested in learning what Russia was up to: an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI didn’t much care whether England got the tournament, of course, but the agent, who supervised the FBI’s Eurasian Organized Crime squad, had been looking for opportunities to chase down conspiracies emanating from Russia. After breaking the back of the Russian mob in New York, the squad had set its sights on border-crossing financial crimes involving oligarchs and mafia kingpins. Steele’s intelligence about Russian attempts to corrupt FIFA seemed to check all the boxes.

Thus began one of the largest and most ambitious investigations of international graft and money laundering in American history, one that would expose decades of deep-seated rot and corruption in global soccer. Over five years, a team of IRS and FBI agents, working under the direction of several ambitious young prosecutors, secretly dug into international soccer’s darkest corners, flipping officials and mining millions of financial records to build a convincing case that the beautiful game had become little more than a source of vast profits for an international organized crime syndicate.

The investigation finally broke into public view on May 27, 2015, with the sensational early morning arrests of seven soccer officials in Zurich. The world’s most popular game was shaken to its core: Multiple generations of FIFA administrators were brought down, accused of collectively taking hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes. In a matter of days, FIFA’s once-untouchable president, Blatter, announced that he would resign, and soon he was under criminal investigation as well. (Blatter was not among those indicted but he was ultimately banned from all soccer-related activities for six years.) To date, more than two dozen people and entities have been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering in the case, which continues.

The Department of Justice managed to do something that few if any of the sport’s billions of fans had ever believed possible: FIFA, nested high above Zurich and, its officials thought, beyond any kind of regulation or government interference, had finally been held accountable.

The investigation also forged a strong bond of trust between Steele and American law enforcement, one that led the former British spy, in July 2016, to hand the same FBI agent a secret dossier he had assembled alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in the American presidential elections, among other even more lurid claims.

By nearly every measure, the FIFA case had been a tremendous success, showcasing brilliant, ambitious police work while underscoring the international leadership role of American rule of law. Investigators in a half-dozen other countries, chastened by what the United States had done to the world’s game, saw little choice but to open their own FIFA investigations.

But there is one glaring hole in what even the vanquished defense attorneys who had corrupt soccer officials as clients called a breathtakingly meticulous and exhaustive federal investigation and prosecution: any mention of Russia. 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.

Putin’s campaign to win the right to host the World Cup ultimately proved successful. An attempt by FIFA itself to audit the bid after the fact was stymied when it was discovered that a football foundation linked to Abramovich, Putin’s oligarch pal, destroyed the Russia bid team’s computers. (A FIFA report released last year cleared the bid team of any wrongdoing.)

Following the successful World Cup bid campaign, Putin returned to Russia’s presidency amid a growing wave of nationalistic sentiment and was subsequently re-elected to a fourth term in March with more than 75% of the vote.

In the past few years, Russia has been accused of interfering in foreign elections, sponsoring cyberwarfare, poisoning enemies with nerve agents, invading Ukraine and abetting a murderous dictatorship in Syria. 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. Tellingly, Russia’s hopes rest on its captain, the coolheaded goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who presumably will be tasked with blocking an endless barrage of opponents’ shots. Russia’s is the second lowest ranked team in the tournament; in a recent poll, less than 20% of Russians said they believed it had a hope of advancing beyond the opening round.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world will tune in to watch that opening match, among them some of the same American law enforcement agents who built the FIFA case in the first place. Eight years since then, Russia is once again at the center of an American investigation of transnational corruption and collusion, this time led by the special counsel Robert Mueller, who was F.B.I. director when the FIFA case was opened. Many of those soccer-loving viewers doubtless will wonder how it could be possible that Russia, of all places, could be hosting the World Cup, an event that remains relentlessly popular despite the disgrace befallen the institution that organizes it. Few, if any, will wonder whether Russia can actually take home the glittering trophy when the tournament ends on July 15. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter what happens on the field.

Russia already won.

(Ken Bensinger is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and the author of the forthcoming “Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal,” from which this essay is adapted.)

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.