This feature is part of The Tsars of Football series
There’s greed, and then there’s Vitaliy Mutko.
When the Russian Duma’s Audit Chamber completed a review of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, they found that the Minister for Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy had claimed 97 breakfasts for the three-week stay in Canada on expenses at a cost of $4,500. His room had cost almost $30,000 for his stay, which allegedly put his spending at 12 times over the official allowance.
The revelations came sandwiched between Russia’s worst ever Olympic performance and its own Games in Sochi, which were by far the most expensive Olympics Games, summer or winter, ever staged. The shocking performance of the athletes themselves, for which Mutko was ultimately responsible in his ministerial capacity, had cost $26 million annually, roughly the same as Canada’s outlay on their team, which did little to placate then-President Dmitry Medvedev.
“Those in charge of preparation for the Olympics must take responsibility now,” said Medvedev back in the 2010 aftermath of the Vancouver Games. While he didn’t name Mutko personally, it was fairly clear that the Minister was included in the criticism. “They should take the courageous decision and tender their resignations. If they cannot, we will help them. Collosal money was invested in Olympic sports, but money cannot do everything … the athlete – not the federations, those fat cats – must be given priority.”
The President’s words were to be expected, just the same as the predictable lack of action to back them up. The exact balance of power between Vladimir Putin and Medvedev has not been hard to fathom for observers of the last two decades of Russian politics, and it was with the former that Mutko aligned himself with.
His rhetoric about the fine margins between sporting victory and failure to defend the team’s poor record was almost as well-rehearsed as his defensive jibe about his contemporaries. “Why do those who want to accuse me of so etching not interest themselves in how much the French sports minister paid for accommodation?”
The whole episode shows that Mutko is a modern operator of sporting politics. Not content with merely holding onto his government position, he is now also President of the Russia Football Union, a member of FIFA’s executive committee and chairman of the 2018 World Cup organising committee, making him unquestionably the most powerful man in Russian sport.
His ascent to power has coincided with a very Russian golden age of sport. In the space of little over a decade, the country will have hosted the Winter Olympics, its first ever Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Athletics World Championships, the Rugby Sevens World Cup, the IHHF Ice Hockey World Championships (twice), the World Biathlon Championships, even the World Winter Swimming Championships in Tyumen – and of course the FIFA World Cup.
All of these showpiece events have attracted the attention of the world, but have come at some cost. The glossy sheen of global competition has not covered over the shattering allegations of state-run doping, financial mismanagement, racism and widespread corruption, with Mutko having to use all of his nous to put out the fires that are spreading wildly around him. If there’s one thing he has an endless supply of, however, it is nous.
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Mutko is a close ally of Vladimir Putin
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The previous RFU President Nikolai Tolstykh – ‘Thick Nick’ as his name loosely translates into English – had overseen a disastrous period during which Fabio Capello was allowed to sign a staggeringly generous contract that even included a clause allowing the Italian, but not the impoverished RFU, to unilaterally break the deal. Tolstykh’s election in 2012 had come with the backing of Mutko himself after the latter pulled out of the race, and was built on a promise to reform youth football, but within three years he had been hounded out by a popular belief that he wasn’t powerful enough to effect change.
On the surface, Tolstykh’s inability to clear up the financial and political mess at federal level led to him being voted out of office, despite him claiming to have actually improved the RFU’s deficit, but the truth is it was an impossible job for one man to accomplish. The issue of Russian youth development in football has again come to the forefront of people’s conscience with the desperately poor performance of the national team at Euro 2016 and the worrying lack of alternatives for the squad. Tolstykh’s agenda was, and always will be, a task that will take not only time but a complete overhaul of the education and preparation of coaches, officials and players – something that will patently take longer than the three years he was given.
With the former Dinamo Moscow player gone, in stepped Mutko. While nobody believes he literally ate five $45 breakfasts everyday in Vancouver or can ascertain conclusively that Tolstykh “had done everything to finally wreck the image of Russian football”, as Anzor Kavazashvili, former head of the RFU anti-match-fixing unit claimed, there is only one winner in the battle to control the game. However unpalatable it may be, Russian football is deeply embedded in a mire of politics over clarity, and only someone who understands how to navigate these perilous waters will survive.
How did Mutko earn the support of President Putin? How did he engineer himself into a position of such unimaginable power? According to FIFA statutes, no government is allowed to interfere in the running of its football association, and yet Mutko, the Minister of Sport, holds the presidency of the RFU. He actively pursues measures that reflect Putin’s outspoken views on foreign player regulations, while his dual role as member of the FIFA executive committee and head of the Russian World Cup again appears to contravene the ethical code of world football’s governing body.
The answer lies further in his past. He had previously spent four years as President of the RFU from 2005 to 2009, during which time Russia delivered their best performance at a major tournament by storming to the semifinals of Euro 2008. CSKA Moscow and Zenit Saint Petersburg both won the UEFA Cup during his tenure, and while those victories could not be attributed to Mutko’s direct influence, the vicarious success did his image no harm at all.
Before he rose to his national positions of power, he was president of Zenit itself around the turn of he century. It was under his club presidency that Gazprom were introduced to Zenit as club sponsors. The world’s largest gas corporation bought a controlling interest in the club two years after Mutko left his official role in 2003, and have since plowed untold millions into the playing squad to make it one of the wealthiest clubs in Europe. German sports manufacturing giant Adidas had been brought in as kit producers in 1997, long before Zenit were in any way desirable for marketing purposes.
Despite the seemingly unstoppable momentum of Zenit’s endless spending power, a decade ago they were little more than a solid side near the top of the table. In fact, when Mutko took over in 1997 they had only recently returned to the top flight, and it wasn’t until 2001 until they qualified for continental competition through their league placement. His reign as club president saw Zenit drag themselves up from mid-table strugglers, who had managed to score less a goal per game in the season before he took charge, to being a national powerhouse with a healthy youth system bearing fruit.
Russian legend Alexander Kerzhakov had top scored in the 2002 and 2003 seasons, Mutko’s last as President, and would go on to become the country’s all-time top scorer. Andrey Arshavin needs little introduction to British audiences; the PR spearhead of the successful World Cup bid is widely regarded as one of Zenit’s and Russia’s finest talents ever. His breakthrough form in 2001, when he was voted Zenit’s second best player ahead of Kerzhakov, along with Vladimir Bystrov and Igor Denisov’s emergence was further proof of the quality coming through the youth system.
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Read | A World of Ultras: Zenit Saint Petersburg
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With the famously fierce pride between fans and ‘their’ native local-born players, it could be expected that Mutko’s period is seen as a success on the pitch, even with just a solitary Russian Cup to show for it. His push towards privatisation was crucial for keeping the club up to speed with the modern game, and in the long-term helped ensure the competitive capacity of Zenit with blockbuster signings now commonplace.
As a result, many of his shortcomings have been largely brushed under the carpet by his dexterous PR management. As someone in the glare of global media attention, his public persona has had to be refined in the way he presents himself, but it wasn’t always so. Vladimir Pozner is one of the most widely-known political journalists in Russia who was active in spreading Soviet propaganda during the 1960s and 1970s, so is well placed to comment on the effectiveness of image. Speaking to The Moscow Times he revealed the development of Mutko’s approach to media:
“He wasn’t very good at bringing across his viewpoint … He stumbled around a lot,” Pozner recently said about a 2009 interview conducted with the then-newly appointed Minister.
Before that time Mutko had rarely had to face such widespread attention, and certainly not defend such catastrophically far-reaching controversies as he does now. In May this year, however, it was a different story; Mutko “didn’t behave like a man knee-deep in scandal”, and responded to Pozner’s questions “skilfully” and with “a combination of openness, calmness and cultivated confidence.”
To survive on any level within any form of Russian politics, be it in the State Duma or the hallways of the RFU, an ability to mould and adapt one’s persona to the audience is essential. The master of this is Vladimir Putin himself, whom Pozner exclusively interviewed for an hour in 2004. “He could turn on the charm and he’s on your wavelength like that,” he told the Financial Times last summer. “He’s a great listener. He hears you and he’s got a sense of humour and all of that. But he’s also an autocrat. As [Lord Acton] said, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. I don’t like politicians in general. I don’t trust them.”
Mutko has been closely linked to Putin for nearly quarter of a century, and owes his current position in no small part to his place within the Saint Petersburg ‘set’ – the powerful, rich businessmen and politicians with strong Kremlin connections. Arkady Rotenberg, for example, is a former judo sparring partner and school friend of Putin and the majority stakeholder in SGM Group, Russia’s largest gas pipeline and electrical power supply conglomerate which has had a long history with Gazprom. His personal history has called into question the legitimacy of his favourable business deals, which he strenuously disputes. “Vladimir Vladimirovich doesn’t protect me,” he told the Financial Times in 2012. He and his brother Boris, who until recently was president of Dinamo Moscow, also own a 38 percent stake in SMP, Russia’s fastest growing bank.
While he is annoyed by the insinuation that he has thrived purely because of his relationship with the president, even he doesn’t deny there are advantages to having a friendship in such high places. “If people didn’t give me all this publicity, calling me a ‘friend of Putin’, then my business would be worse. And so it’s growing well.”
In its first four years after forming in 2008 from the amalgamation of a number of Gazprom subsidiaries acquired by Rotenberg, SGM received contracts for 11,600 kilometres of pipeline construction – end to end it would stretch from Saint Petersburg to the Pacific Ocean and back – which saw its revenues grow by 50 percent.
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Read | Gazprom’s colossal football empire
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The state monopoly on the gas industry via Gazprom means the awarding of those contracts was hardly coincidental. Another of Putin’s Saint Petersburg allies, Vladimir Yakunin, was installed as head of the Russian Railways – like Gazprom, a state-run monopoly – by government decree in 2005 and enjoyed a salary of almost $15 million. He also happened to own a dacha near Putin’s on Lake Komsomolskoe near Saint Petersburg and enjoyed a lucrative contract in the run up to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. SGM is Gazprom’s major supplier of pipeline and was another beneficiary of the enormous preparations for Sochi.
Despite not being born in the city like most of the privileged circle, Mutko certainly engineered his way into favour. After being born in Krasnodar Krai in the south of Russia, he moved to Leningrad, as Saint Petersburg was known, to study ship engineering and law, and at the relatively young age of 33 was elected as Deputy Mayor. Around this time Putin was head of the Committee for External Relations of the Saint Petersburg Mayor’s Office, where current Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller also worked. It was Mutko who joined Putin in organising the Goodwill Games of 1994 in the city.
Established as a way to use Olympic disciplines to improve relations between the former Soviet Union and the US, the event was considered a success as it saw significant foreign investment with 30 international sponsors brought on board, while the city’s infrastructure was vastly improved. It would, of course, not be the last time Putin and Mutko would combine to use a grand sporting spectacle to attempt to boost a public image.
During his time at the helm of Zenit, which followed right after his spell in local government, he was also appointed President of the Russian Football Premier League, but his day-to-day financial management has been called into question as Zenit ran into serious debt towards the end of his presidency. Only the takeover, led by his former colleague Miller, secured the future of the club as a thriving going concern.
Upon his election as RFU President last autumn he was tasked with reviving the flagging monetary health of the organisation, something he was acutely aware of. “The most important thing is to pay off the debts that the RFU owes and they are huge,” he told a press conference in July last year. “I don’t want to dramatise the situation, but we are basically on the edge of going bankrupt.
“The first step I will take at the RFU will be to make sure that football is going in the right direction. It is not good when no one understands who and where all the decisions are being taken.”
Commendable rhetoric, certainly. If one compares his comments to that of ousted predecessor Tolstykh, who complained he had been saddled with debt from the previous administration, an insight into the culture of blame becomes apparent.The only difference between the two presidents is that Mutko has been smart enough to complain at the start to ensure that however calamitous his reign may turn out to be, everyone will remember that it was not all down to him alone.
Mutko’s remark about decision-making is extremely pertinent, especially given the FIFA statutes on political interference. When Putin demanded that sport organisations tighten their limits on foreigners, ostensibly to improve the exposure of young native talent to more competitive experience, Mutko duly obliged by cutting the permitted number of ‘legionnaires’ – as foreign players are known in Russia – on a football pitch from seven to six, just three days before last kicked off.
To follow a President’s wishes is not in itself a controversial move, but to do so a matter of hours before teams jetted off around the largest country on earth for the first round of a new season is a clear indication of where the decisions are coming from. It is inconceivable that Richard Scudamore would inform José Mourinho or Antonio Conte that they had to reorganise their squad planning at such short notice.
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Read | André Villas-Boas and the long con
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“The new format will become the end of the development of Russian football,” said then-Zenit manager André Villas-Boas of the announcement. “When you take away Hulk, Witsel, Javi García, what will the Russian Championship be left with? When one of the main players cannot play because of the limit, the others become lazy and do not want to fight for their place. The new system is the worst possible decision. It is the end of football.”
As dramatically apocalyptic as his words may seem, they are not without foundation. In the aftermath of the new ruling, he sold the previous season’s top league goalscorer José Salomon Rondón to West Bromwich Albion to help satisfy the new restrictions, and brought in 32-year-old former Chelsea full-back Yuriy Zhirkov and errant partygoer Aleksandr Kokorin to bolster the Russian passport holders in his squad. Kokorin in particular is the perfect example of the poisonous culture that pervades the issues with development that Villas-Boas was referring to; players with undoubted talent but lacking the drive or necessity to challenge themselves.
What it demonstrates is an understanding that to maintain a position in Russian football involves more than just doing your job well. Mutko is a master of self-preservation who also has a genuine affection for the sport, but whose priority is clearly keeping himself above the water. Even Yakunin found out that a place in the inner circle is fragile at best; after decades as a confidante of Putin, his retirement last year came as a shock, amid suggestions his son Andrei had caused consternation with his UK-based business dealings.
Andrei Yakunin has lived for a number of years in London but his companies were said to have become riddled with corrupt management, while Andrei himself applied successfully for a British Passport, which was said to have angered the Kremlin. Yakunin Sr has warned others in Putin’s circle to watch their backs. “The circle will continue to rotate,” he told Bloomberg. “Remember what happened to Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Guzinskiy. ”
The latter two were hugely successful media magnates who had been forced out by Putin after daring to oppose him. Guzinsky founded Russia’s first independent television network, NTV, where he backed an investigation into the supposedly staged bombings by the FSB (the modern-day incarnation of the government secret service KGB) in the run-up to the 1999 presidential elections. One of Putin’s first acts upon taking office was to take NTV under state control by imprisoning Gusinsky and then forcing him to sell his entire media holdings to Gazprom-Media for $300 million. Gusinsky went into exile, never to return to Russia.
The ruthlessness with which dissenters have been removed from the inner circle has not been lost on Mutko, who at the same time has realised there is a public face he must use to deal with international outcry. His appeal, in broken English, to “speak from the heart” at the official 2018 World Cup host announcement conference, was no accident. The words he chose, the exaggerated rolling of his consonants, even the clasped hand over his chest, were all part of a carefully staged speech that ticked the boxes to connect to FIFA’s executive committee and the expectant media.
Some matters are beyond obsequious platitudes. In July this year, the revelations from the report led by Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren over state-backed doping across Russian sport were shattering for the country as it was revealed that FSB agents disguised as workers had swapped urine samples of athletes who had been doping with clean samples. In the report, it was claimed Mutko had personally intervened in the case of a foreign footballer to ensure he was not caught out. At Euro 2016 Russia’s players were subjected to 46 doping tests as the scrutiny from the World Anti Doping Agency’s investigations intensified, piling more pressure on Mutko himself.
While Putin has responded to McLaren’s WADA-commissioned report by claiming he will suspend all officials directly responsible, he has demanded a more objectively balanced investigation. Yuriy Nagornykh, Mutko’s deputy, has already been temporarily suspended, with Mutko himself escaping immediate consequences. “Mutko was not mentioned in WADA’s report as a person behind the wrongdoings, which other people are suspected of,” said presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov on 19 July. “He is not mentioned as an actual perpetrator.”
To claim that the all-powerful Minister of Sport, President of the RFU and Putin loyalist had no knowledge or complicity in the transgressions is pushing the boundaries of credibility, but so far Mutko’s skilful political manoeuvring has saved his skin. The future of Russian football is never certain, and with the focus of the entire world centred on the management of the sport over the next two years in particular, Mutko will have fewer and fewer places to hide if he doesn’t fulfil his mandate.
Without question he has been sheltered by the system that he grew up in, so in one sense he is the ideal candidate to run Russian football. Idealism is a cheap commodity where alliances and secrets dictate the state of play, and however distasteful it may be, a modern figure who knows how to work both sides of the political minefield is the only type that can hope to survive. Whether Vitaliy Mutko has the ability to lead Russian football through its darkest hour remains to be seen – even Vladimir Putin won’t be able to save him if he doesn’t.
By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint