KEIR RADNEDGE in ST PETERSBURG —- Imagine life in a parallel universe; then imagine life in the bubble of a World Cup draw such as the latest extravaganza here in the dream city of Peter the Great. The difference is minimal.
Outside in the football world, those who worry about how the sport is governed fixated on the accusations of grotesque criminality swirling around some of the non-so-great and not-so-good; outside in St Petersburg itself the sun shone down through Nevsky Prospekt and the tourists flocked through to take photographic advantage of long light days and nights.
Half an hour out of the city, however, at Strelna on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, a very different ‘attraction’ was unfolding.
Several hundred football officials and many more journalists, photographers and broadcasters from almost all of FIFA’s 209 member associations had been granted special access to roam around a few specific corners of the Konstantinovsky Palace estate which is Vladimir Putin’s preferred meeting ground.
Putin was born in St Petersburg, then Leningrad, in 1952. He worked his way up to the pinnacle of power in Russia – not an easy journey! – in 2000 and, whatever his alternative titles, has remained ever more tightly in control.
Painting him in caricature, as do so many western politicians and media outlets, massively underrates him; as they also underrate Blatter. Coincidentally, Putin’s reign has lasted two years fewer than the 79-year-old Swiss whose world football presidency is apparently coming to an end on February 26.
Hence political intrigue provided the backdrop for the draw. Not concerning Russia but FIFA. Will Michel Platini announce his candidacy for the FIFA presidenct next week? Will Spain’s Angel Villar or Germany’s Wolfgang Niersbach or another step into his UEFA shoes?
Equally intriguing, are there any more arrest warrants in the pipeline at the United States Department of Justice and will the Swiss investigation into the Russia and Qatar World Cup awards make any significant headway before at least 2022?
FIFA and Blatter critics should not be misled into thinking the sponsors are ready to turn their back on the World Cup. Angry letters about governance from Coca-Cola and Co are so much self-protective window-dressing. Any senior executive who opened the door for a rival to sprint through would swiftly be despatched to mind the office in Patagonia.
Critics who say it’s all about the money might be better advised to bend the ears of broadcasters who provide by far the most significant largesse.
This, however, became temporary digression as football itself intruded onto the scene in the shape of a draw which has been staged in an ever more intensely glitzy style since the Americanisation of the show in Las Vegas ahead of the 1994 World Cup.
Joao Havelange, president at the time, was not amused. This was not the gravitas ‘his’ event demanded though he did at least put his foot down heavily enough to prevent the draw for the finals being made via giant slot machines.
By contrast general secretary Blatter enjoyed it all, including his on-stage jousting with Robin Williams. He saw the future, tasted it and found that it was good.
And so to Blatter walking onstage with Putin in St Petersburg . . . culture and kitsch, laced with some drawn-out football formalities.
Parallel world indeed.