In light of recent scandals in global sports institutions, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has shared his position in an exclusive interview with TASS.
- How are you, mister Mutko?
- Is this all, Vitaly Leontievich? You promised five years ago to learn English and speak the language like Britain’s Jeffrey Thompson.
- Listen… It was humor! I will explain it once again. Delivering a speech in Zurich in December 2010 to FIFA Executive Committee’s members, I said that - if you entrust Russia with the World Cup in 2018, I will learn speaking English just like our friend Jeff. My colleagues understood the joke. Moreover, some of them carried on with the joke saying – do not learn speaking like Thompson as he is the native speaker and swallows words’ endings while it is much easier to understand you Vitaly.
So you may say that I already cope with the English language. More or less, I am able to communicate with my colleagues and answer questions of foreign journalists. I certainly use help of interpreters when I am discussing serious issues and there is always simultaneous interpreting at sessions of the FIFA Executive Committee. Nevertheless, I do understand everything that I need and I mean what I say.
- What will you say in regard to IAAF and WADA, which accused the Russian athletics of grave wrongdoings? It is either our enemies are slanderous or...
- Yes, the All-Russia Athletics Federation membership has been temporarily suspended… This was no surprise for us. Anyway this is not a tragedy. The passenger jet’s crash on Sinai or the terrorist attack on Paris are horrible tragedies. And the IAAF provisional decision is a minor trouble and we will overcome it, of course…
A lot was said in this regard over the recent days, including by myself. I would not like to repeat myself. It is very hard for me making commentaries on the arrest of Lamine Diack, the former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations. I learnt from media about the news that he was accused of taking a bribe from our athletics federation. I hope that the current investigation will reveal what the truth and fiction is.
Speaking about the report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the IAAF ruling. First of all, this is not the end of the story. A meeting of founders of the World Anti-Doping Agency will take place on Tuesday or Wednesday but one can already guess what exactly they would say. Everything was predestined not on Friday the 13th but much earlier. Some time ago I received a notification saying that the WADA [Independent] Commission intended to publish its findings of the inspection it held since last year’s December in regard to Russian field and track athletes. I was asked to suspend all those involved in something illegal. I asked a logical question in response: 'Misters, based on what do you want me to ban athletes?' Fabricated wiretap recordings are no proof. The initial cause to launch the investigation was a film of [German] television channel ARD. It alleged that an overwhelming majority of Russian medalists and winners of major tournaments over the past ten years had suspicious doping samples. What a massive allegation!
Why such scrupulous attention towards Russia? The explanation is simple if we set aside geopolitics. Yulia Stepanova (Rusanova by maiden name), who was enlisted in the Russian athletics national team and whom we suspended for doping abuse, started working for WADA three years ago. Now she lives in Germany and, as far as we know, is waiting for Canada residence permit. I always try to think well of people but there is a term “stool pigeon” in the anti-doping code. Mrs. Stepanova assures that nobody hired her and she did everything on her own initiative. But can you imagine a person paying own money to purchase cutting-edge eavesdropping and video surveillance equipment, which can be stealthily planted into a ladies handbag or any other personal belonging? The question is why all this of specialized equipment was needed? It turned out that it was needed all that time to secretly record everything that was going on the Russian national team. Stepanova would ask coaches questions from a questionnaire somebody worked out for her and would engage her teammates in the so-called warm-hearted conversations. But in reality she would induce girls into confessions about their alleged use of doping and other prohibited substances.
Then some sort of specialists listened to the recordings and the tapes went further to ARD. The Germans made a two-part film. It appears to be documentary, but in reality it turned out to be a science-fiction with elements of a thriller. It gives an impression that Russia is rotten in doping abuse bordering on the government-authorized level and that I personally invite athletes to my office and manipulate them here. Understand?
- But earlier this year the facts concerning the Saransk race walkers from Viktor Chegin’s Center turned out to be true.
- True, it was an unpleasant story, but why should we put everything into a single bucket and make a system out of a single incident? Did we either spare or even shelter the coach? He was punished deservedly despite all of his previous merits.
Look here, in 2006 Russia signed the Anti-Doping Convention, passed relative domestic legislature and within several years we accomplished more in cleaning the sport than any other country could do in decades. Do you know that before 2009 no doping control officer could cross our border? No one would let him come here. And behind the closed doors anything can be done to athletes. Nobody brought global claims against us at that time. But they emerged when Russia opened itself to the world. We established the RUSADA non-commercial partnership and keep sustaining it financially with a five million euro subsidy from the budget. We are paying a yearly fee of one million to WADA, we have set up the anti-doping laboratory in Moscow and it functions in line with the ADAMS system. When I became minister, it was located in some basement. We spent one billion rubles on the Russian president’s order to build ultramodern headquarters and to purchase all the necessary equipment. The laboratory has become a leader at WADA during the past years. It underwent recertification every year and was ranked six under the five-grade scale. Russia hosted IAAF and FINA world championships, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, and everything was fine. At some point I proposed the following: the laboratory has 25 staff members, let’s hire foreigners on key positions to exclude any possibility of a fraud. Let there be your doping-control officers and we have no objections!
But what has suddenly changed? Maybe, WADA is having fast days? I met with members of Richard Pound’s commission in Zurich in September and told them –‘My dear colleagues, Russia has implemented all of your requirements. What else do you want from us? Perhaps, I should dance on the table for you to like me more?’”
Moscow laboratory’s director Grigory Rodchenkov was forced to resign but, you know, he is a real scientist, an expert in his sphere and his deputy won a grant in the US and got a personal research laboratory in Los Angeles. Hope the man will not be fired after my statement. I don’t want to overload you with details, so the last thing is that RUSADA is ranked world’s second in the number of registered blood passports. Professionals would explain to you that these results cannot be replaced or forged.
The Russian team of 53 Olympic sports has 3,000 people and over 2,000 of them are in the so-called international testing pool which has nothing to do with us. You know how busy the schedule is of star athletes. They are outside Russia for months! They would depart early for training sessions before the season and then travel between various competitions. Who is testing them abroad? We often don’t know. It may be the laboratory in Cologne or Lausanne.
Russian athletes’ number of positive doping samples equals the figure of any other leading country and it amounts to about two percent. The same figure is observed in Germany and America and 53 countries have even more disqualified athletes. But I haven’t heard of WADA commissions heading there with inspections.
But the Russian field and track athletes are now threatened with new exposures and absence at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro! A ‘Black Spot’ seems to be handed over to Russia.
- The West does not like Russia?
- They cannot understand how we began winning again. It seemed that those Russians lost their leading positions, dropped to the second division and then, all of a sudden – Bang! – they are back with the leaders. It is quite obvious that not everyone likes it.
Attempts to slam Russia are a popular trend and a way to demonstrate one’s toughness. But politics should not be mixed up with sports.
- What’s going to happen next, Mr. Mutko?
- We will keep working. There is no feeling that someone has opened our eyes. The problem has been known for a long time. By the way, the WADA commission has confirmed that this concerns not only Russia and not only track and field but also other sports. The struggle should be comprehensive and overall.
Yes, not all is smooth at the ARAF. We disqualified 22 athletes last year but I repeat that this is not more than in other countries. The whole anti-doping system should be aimed at protecting honest athletes. Any sanctions should punish the wrongdoers. And the suspension of our federation can affect, for instance, Elena Isinbaeva who is getting ready for the fifth Olympics in her career or Masha Kuchina who unexpectedly beat record-holders and became world champion in Beijing.
What should they be punished for? This is a biased approach and attempt to weaken competition at the Games. Why shifting the blame?
Now they want to strip us of two tournaments. Russia may not host the World Race Walking Cup and its junior division. And who wins? Definitely, not athletes. Everybody knows well how our country can organize competitions.
We are ready for one more ARAF reform if the measures taken earlier are dissatisfying. We replaced the national federation’s chief, sacked the head coach and purged the system. We sent a renewed team of 70 people to the 2015 world championship in Beijing, and representatives of sports which aroused doubts were not included. For example, the race walkers did not come. We showed the world that we want honest victories. I can assure you that most Russian athletes are clean. We just asked the IAAF to protect them but it didn’t work.
I’ll take the situation at the ARAF under the toughest personal control. We will hold snap election and will be able to show a new face of the federation to the IAAF. As a matter of fact, I recently propose a radical move to President Sebastian Coe that we suspend the ARAF for six months ourselves and temporarily give its rights to the Russian Olympic Committee that will take track and field athletes to Rio. But the IAAF did not agree to this.
- But will our runners and jumpers go to Brazil as a result?
- I’d like to calm everyone down. Just don’t doubt. Olympics without Russia are like a wedding without music. This will kill all sport principles.
I’ll tell you honestly: the problem is not with us but with international sports organizations. They have to be examined and reformed. Ministers in all countries change from time to time and members of the IOC, FIFA, UEFA hold their positions for decades. Until they are eighty or older. They are doing well and stable… I think the ARAF suspension is an attempt to avoid solving problems. By suspending us they can please many, including politicians among Russia’s “friends” and rivals in sports…
The global sports leaders should take control of the situation and not allow “independent commissions,” English newspapers and German TV channels to manipulate them… But this is a topic for another discussion.
Yes, we had two paths to follow in the situation of the doping scandal: a tough response up to defending our interests in court. And we would see who won. But Vladimir Putin gave different instructions. He rejected confrontation and told us to search for compromise and ways of interaction with international federations. That’s what we are going to do. We don’t need any more sensations. Our key purpose is to protect athletes and personally punish those guilty.
As for Rio, these will be tough Olympics, undoubtedly. We continue preparations and training work, although the main burden is borne by the sports federations as the Sports Ministry cannot and must not substitute them and this contradicts the IOC Charter. Yes, indeed, we have problems in our traditional medal-winning sport disciplines. We need to raise the performance level in rowing, rifle and pistol shooting, swimming and athletics. It is becoming ever more difficult to win even in sport disciplines where we traditionally dominate. The majority is tired that Russia keeps taking gold in synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics. That is why, they invent new rules, change work procedures to complicate our life. We’re coping with the task so far but competition is rising.
- Is it possible that we will be stripped of the right to host the FIFA World Cup “on the sly”? Especially after recent revelations on behalf of Joseph Blatter on some sort of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ in selecting the venues for the 2018 and 2022 championships?
- You should agree that it was never us [Russia] taking part in the so-called agreements. Hardly anyone knows what had been discussed behind the closed doors. Russia officially submitted its bid, honestly won the competition, and no-one has the ability to doubt its right to the World Cup, let alone stripping it of the championship.
I clearly remember how the decision on Russia’s bid was made as I was taking part in it. We tried to fit into the strategy pursued by FIFA and it was to bring the championship to the regions and countries, where it had never been held before. It was Blatter’s long-held idea. Japan was the first and was followed by South Korea, then there was South Africa… Why wouldn't Russia be next?
Before departing to Zurich for the [FIFA] Executive Committee’s session I paid a visit to Novo-Ogaryovo and reported the situation to Vladimir Putin. No one guaranteed our victory and Vladimir [Putin’s] support would have come in handy in Switzerland. This was the case in Guatemala, where Sochi was elected [for 2014 Olympics]. However, the same trick would not work two times in a row and, on the contrary, there was risk that Putin’s presence could be viewed by somebody as an attempt to exert pressure. That is why Vladimir [Putin] called [Sepp] Blatter over telephone and told him that he would arrive in Switzerland only in case Russia won the bid. This is how it all exactly happened – 15 minutes after it was announced that Russia won the bid, Vladimir [Putin] boarded the plane and joined our delegation as we were celebrating our triumph. It was then that Putin reassured the FIFA Executive Committee and Blatter personally, that Russia would fulfill all of its undertaken obligations. Since then we [Russia] never offered a slightest reason to doubt our promise.
- But is Russia insured against the possible relocation of the 2018 World Cup?
- Such questions are within the FIFA authority. The scheme has been approved long ago and everything was done as it is supposed to be.
- So, it means that in case we are stripped of the championship Russia would be paid the compensation?
- There is a substantive insurance premium for such case. But nobody is taking anything from Russia. This will never take place under no matter what circumstances. The Executive Committee in Zurich made the necessary decisions long time ago and repeatedly confirmed them. I cannot even imagine a possible force majeure to cancel the championship. It may happen only if either FIFA self-terminates or the United States would press against the organization the most sound corruption charges. I do not believe either in the first of the second scenario. In all investigations, conducted by the authorities of the United States and Switzerland, FIFA is the injured party. The charges are pressed against definite persons, but the organization remains untouched so far. But dark times will come if it happens.
I read Blatter’s interview with TASS and in this regard I can only cite classic passage from O’Henry’s ‘The only way to break up a trust is from the inside.’ Unfortunately, this is what we see at the moment. Public arguments between Blatter and [suspended UEFA President Michel] Platini played a detrimental role.
The damage inflicted on the [FIFA] image is serious. Some 400,000 people worldwide play football. FIFA is a powerful international organization investing tens of billions of dollars into the global development of this sport. Thousands of stadiums and children’s academies were built. All of that can be crossed out with the corruption scandal.
As I was attending the most recent session of the Executive Committee I could not understand what was going on. A huge lawyers’ company was hired for more or less protecting the interests of FIFA. However, one is unable now to take a step without its instructions. Blatter set up an Independent Ethics Committee, which immediately suspended himself for 90 days. Then Platini dropped out. This is all taking place on the eve of the elections of the organization’s new president. How could all of this possibly happen? I cannot understand it. What we have as a result is a paradoxical situation, when the staff is operational, but the acting FIFA head is unable to fulfill his duties. I have directly asked Blatter – ‘How did You let it happen?’ You have allocated millions of US dollars from FIFA budget to invite an American company led by former [New York district attorney] Michael Garcia, who immediately launched an investigation against you. At your expense! This is some kind of a joke, to be honest!
- FIFA President Sepp Blatter also mentioned you in an interview with TASS, saying the combination of the posts of the sports minister and the Russian Football Union head was hardly a wise decision. There is clearly a conflict of interest.
- You need to know nuances to give an objective assessment. I was not going to combine any posts and this scenario was not part of my life plans. But this is how the circumstances developed. This is an uneasy story both morally and physically. To make it clear, this can be compared to the situation when the director of a large enterprise or a consortium simultaneously heads a workshop, which is an important and key division but still one of many units. You know, the Russian Football Union is quite a large organization comprising regional federations, twenty-two national teams, professional clubs and amateur leagues and grassroots football. All this requires time and constant attention.
- The candidature of Valery Gazzayev was quite good for this post. Do you think he would have failed to cope with the duties of the ‘football workshop’ head?
- I can’t judge my colleagues as this is not quite correct. I can say only one thing: the football world is a small place and everyone knows well who and how can do the job. Valery Georgiyevich [Gazzayev] included absolutely proper and reasonable proposals in his program but each point of this program evoked a question: how could this be achieved in practice? It is easy to write down that a billion rubles should be attracted for one project and two billion rubles for another project but where can this money be found? Or let’s take his other idea: we should increase attendance at matches of the Russian Football Championship. A splendid idea! But the question is how and at whose expense this can be done.
- Do you have answers to these questions?
- I don’t set myself the goals that cannot be achieved. I try to approach the solution of tasks pragmatically, without outpacing events or driving the situation into a deadlock. I have never concealed that I didn’t want to quit the post of the Russian Football Union head in 2009 because I hadn’t had enough time to implement many plans. But Dmitry Medvedev who was then the country’s president decided that high-level officials should not head sports federations.
- How many sports federations are there in Russia?
- About a hundred and thirty, of which fifty three represent Olympic sports.
- Don’t the other fifty-two federations envy the Russian Football Union now that the sports minister heads it?
- As I have said, football is more than just a game. Over two and a half million Russians play football regularly and up to 60 percent of the country’s population watch top matches of the national football team. This is a noticeable social phenomenon! De facto, the Russian Football Union is federation No. 1 and this top position should be felt in all its aspects: its organization, economic model, culture and structure… This was my goal while I headed the Russian Football Union. Over the six years that I observed the Russian football as if from the outside, certain strategic decisions were made and everything developed in a way different from how I perceived it. Now it is necessary to return to the previous practices we developed.
Of course, had it not been for Russia hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup, I would hardly have returned to the Russian Football Union. And surely I would not have insisted on the combination of posts. And the country’s leaders would have not supported me in this matter. It is understandable that such decisions are made with the knowledge of the country’s top leaders. Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] has not changed his opinion and continues to believe that high-level government officials in the rank of a minister or higher must fulfill their direct duties, without getting distracted by social work like heading sports federations. I agree with this position. But in this specific case, both the country’s president and the head of the government proceeded from the fact that the successful organization of the 2018 FIFA World Cup was the most serious task requiring the mobilization of efforts in the next two and a half years.
The point is that the entire effort is not just limited to building sports facilities or resolving organizational issues. Largely speaking, guests will come to Russia to watch football and all the rest is a background for them. They will come to support their favorite teams, enjoy the sights of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and other cities and return home while we’ll stay. Preparations for the championship are an excellent chance for an infrastructure breakthrough. But even this is not all. After the Winter Olympics in Sochi, stadiums, ice skating arenas, a new airport, roads and tunnels have appeared in the city while thousands more children have taken up sports to join ski and skating sports schools. Also, four times more children have taken up short track speed skating than before the Winter Olympics! We should use this chance. Yes, we hold large international events in Russia to give a boost to the domestic economy. But another aspect is that these events help popularize sports and invest in the nation’s health. Hardly anyone will object, if the Russian football reaches a new qualitative level after 2018.
- Why do you think that qualitative growth will be achieved?
- I remember a talk with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin when our national football team failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. The president asked why the team was playing badly and I answered that the main reason was obvious. At that time, there were 1,500 children’s sports schools, clubs and classes where 300,000 children were learning to play football. However, these sports schools were only 30 percent provided with playing fields, of which there were only eighteen fields with artificial pitch. So, what skills and tactics a boy could learn, if he played football in spring and autumn with his shoes in the mud and had to forget about football in winter because there were few indoor practice facilities in the country? I said then that you can’t become a violinist without taking up an instrument in your hands. The same is true for football. It was necessary to build at least one playing field for each sports school. Putin agreed with me and immediately called Economic Development Minister [Herman] Gref: “Vitaly [Mutko] will come to you, hear what he will say.” Gref helped much at the time and we prepared a program of football development in the country. This is what a true economics minister means!
- Against whom are your remarks directed?
- They are not directed against anyone. What I’m saying is that you need not only to think about the inflation level or try to predict the oil price but see real problems and properly identify key points and priorities. After all, physical culture and sports also influence the economy. If people get stronger and healthier, this means that competitiveness and labor productivity will increase.
- Let’s get distracted from football for the time being. Otherwise, no one will believe that you also combine the post of the football chief with the post of the sports minister.
- It is the Russian Football Union where I’m holding the second post but the main place of my work is at the Sports Ministry located at 18 Kazakova Street. When I came to head the ministry in 2009, we elaborated and accepted a strategy for the development of physical culture and sports in the country. Before that, this strategy simply didn’t exist. The allocation of funds depended on a finance official’s wish to give or not to give money. I looked into the documents of long-term planning up until 2020 to see that expenditures on physical culture and sports were included in the social security budget. We managed to make this spending a separate budget item. Today 73 billion rubles has been set aside for these purposes.
- And what do you think about the talks on the possible liquidation of the Sports Ministry and the transfer of its functions to the Culture Ministry?
- This has no significance today as the state sports policy has been developed and it will be implemented regardless of any administrative reforms.
- But probably you are personally concerned over whether you’ll be able to keep your post.
- Look here, I’m quite calm. A post doesn’t mean anything to me and I don’t hold on to it. Another thing is that the idea of abolishing a sectoral ministry looks somewhat premature. This would save relatively few funds and bring petty benefits compared with the funds that would have to be spent on changing signboards for offices and ordering new blanks with seals. However, no decision has been made yet and this is just one of the options of the government’s reform, which the expert community is currently discussing.
In my view, the talk should be about the role of the state in regulating particular sectors of the economy.
- Who sits next to you at government meetings in the Russian Government House?
- We have an alphabetic order. If everyone is in Moscow, my neighbors are Denis Manturov, head of the Industry and Trade Ministry, or Mikhail Menn, construction minister. Everyone has his place in the team and responsibility zone. Everything is strictly under the existing rules.
Incidentally, in this regard, we also look to be quite up to the mark if we judge by the high performance sport. Look at Russia’s place in world ratings for some sport disciplines. I don’t want to point at my colleagues but sometimes their indicators are quite modest. Meanwhile, our athletes participating in major international competitions, be it Winter or Summer Olympic Games, actually always stay in top places and the Russian national team is among the top three performers in team count. We failed once in Vancouver, falling outside the top ten group of national teams. I had not yet returned to Moscow from Canada at that time when demands were already made about my immediate resignation from the post of the sports minister. I said at once that I was ready to resign but it wasn’t my personality that mattered and dismissal decisions alone wouldn’t help. Dmitry Medvedev who was the country’s president at that time and especially Vladimir Putin who shouldered the bulk of criticism agreed with my conclusions and made no hasty personnel decisions. By the time of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I had been a full-fledged minister for a couple of months only and it would have been strange to make me responsible for the performance of our national team.
- But you were appointed the head of the Sports Ministry back in May 2008 ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
- Perhaps, you forgot that a three-tier governance system existed in Russia at that time. Ministries were responsible for sectoral policies, federal agencies implemented them while federal services exercised control over policy implementation according to plan. This was the classical example of responsibility apportionment and the elimination of the principle of sole command. Responsibility was apportioned among three different structures. From 1991 to 2008, the Russian sports governance structure changed eleven times. Can you imagine, eleven times! Sports were either part of the Labor Ministry or the Health Ministry. Can a person normally work in such conditions? To put it plainly, I had no physical premises to discharge my duties and my functions were carried out in the Government House. This could not last forever.
Finally, we built a vertical governance structure but this happened only in 2010 when federal agencies were liquidated and ministries were given a possibility to administer the budget.
Of course, I already could not really influence the preparations for the Vancouver Games. The state was not governing this process, national teams were left to themselves and this activity was placed at the disposal of the Russian Olympic Committee and sports federations. Even leading athletes were receiving meager money allowances and had to participate endlessly in commercial competitions to earn extra money instead of preparing for major sports events at special training facilities. It is no use to recall this. It is good that we turned over this page, which is now in the past, and made right conclusions that helped us perform well at the Sochi Olympics. And I am grateful to the country’s leadership for support.
- But five out of 13 gold medals were won by foreign athletes who had gained Russian citizenship, such as Viktor Ahn and Viktor Wilde. This is import substitution in the opposite way, so to speak.
- What difference does this make? Listen, these are elements of geopolitics! But we do not trade in passports. For example, a student from Kenya is studying in Kazan. He is a long-distance runner and has expressed his desire to stay in Russia and perform for it. We do not hurry with a decision. We look at the situation pragmatically. We do not seek to search for athletes throughout the world to lure them into Russia. It is true, though, that we have missed a chance now to naturalize a rising football star.
I turn to the president with a request to grant Russian citizenship to a particular athlete in exceptional cases. This is not an empty sound for me. Today I have several similar applications but I’m not in a hurry, I take time to study the biography of each candidate. I must clearly understand for whom I make a request. These should be athletes of the level like basketballers Becky Hammon or John Robert Holden.
Figure skater Yuko Kawaguchi herself wrote a letter to Russian coach Tamara Moskvina, explaining that pair skating was poorly developed in Japan and she could not find a pair. Russian figure skater Tatiana Volosozhar also could not find a skating pair until she met Max Trankov. Now they are husband and wife. As for Viktor Ahn, his native country, South Korea, excluded him from the national team. He had heavy injuries when we recruited him. We built a modern short track center in Novogorsk [outside Moscow] where the national team could practice day and night, invited a high-class coach, provided medical and biological support and draw up a training schedule. Incidentally, Ahn won one of the medals in Sochi in a relay event with our athletes.
Vic Wilde was never a top athlete in the US national team, staying on the bench but he truly showed himself in Russia. We created conditions for this. This is an illusion that everything is easy and simple: you recruit a foreigner, hand him a Russian passport and he starts winning medals. Any success is preceded by serious work. Before the Sochi Olympics, we improved the governance system for national teams, enhanced control, beefed up the coaching staff, replaced seven presidents of sports federations, made budgets transparent and introduced fifteen amendments to the law on sports.
Now no sports federation can appoint a chief coach without the sports minister’s consent and no one can be accredited until he substantiates a sports development program and submits a plan of preparing the national team.
As Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev used to stay, the process has begun!
- Back to football. When you are walking or riding past Moscow’s central Manezhnaya Square, do you cast a casual glance at the digital clock counting down the seconds, minutes and days still to go before the 2018 World Football Cup kickoff?
- I do so each time I’m there. And I cannot but say to myself that just recently we had a thousand days and nights to spare, but now less than 950 are left… Time flies!
- It surely does, and sometimes too fast, I am afraid. At a certain point the clock even got ahead of time.
- It was one of those amusing oddities that invariably accompany any major happening. Our self-styled technicians were to blame. Some of them decided to take a look at how it works and must have changed the original settings. First they stopped the clock and then made it go faster. Inquisitive do-it-yourselfers! Now we’ve closed and sealed everything very tightly. No way of getting inside. Time now goes as it should. But ever less of it is left.
- Have the 2018 World Cup ambassadors been named?
- The first twelve have been selected, among them footballers Igor Akinfeyev and Oleg Shatov, swimmer Alexander Popov, gymnast Alexei Nemov and ice hockey player Pavel Datsyuk… The closer we get to 2018, the tighter the media agenda. Whereas before we remained in the shadow of Brazil – the host country of the previous World Cup - now it’s our turn. The volunteer program is up and running. Very soon we will present the official mascot of the 2018 World Cup, and in November next year we will hold the Confederations’ Cup lots drawing ceremony… A real rush-hour stampede for the media to cover!
- Clearly, it’s too early to discuss what will follow July 15, 2018, the day of the final match, and yet… Who will enjoy the benefits of the beautiful stadiums, some of them still being built? There are no professional football teams in Sochi and Volgograd. The Baltika and Volga clubs are bogged down in division one, and Mordovia and Rubin are faced with the risk of saying good-bye to the Premier League…
- Don’t you exaggerate! Firstly, football is an unpredictable game. The tournament schedule may change drastically over a couple of months. Secondly, the very same city of Volgograd has very strong football traditions. Many still remember well its football club Rotor. In a word, there is a solid basis from which to build up.
At the very beginning FIFA was emphatically against reducing the stadiums’ capacity for fear ticket sales revenues will dwindle, but we managed to persuade it that in Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg stadiums accommodating 35,000 (in contrast to the original plans for 45,000 fans) would be quite enough. The attendance of Russia’s domestic matches in these cities is not sky-high, to put it mildly, so why should we be breeding ghost stadiums that will stay half-empty after 2018? Besides, the Central Stadium in Yekaterinburg is an architectural monument. It cannot be razed to the ground. That helped contain construction costs somewhat.
I am certain the 2018 World Cup will foment popular interest in football. Let’s look into the future with optimism.
Top level matches these days gather capacity audiences. Say, when Spartak hosts Zenit, not a single seat at Moscow’s newly-built Otkrytiye-Arena seating 45,000 is vacant. A crowd as large gathered for the Rubin-Lokomotiv clash in Kazan in July 2013. Take it from me as a witness: every single seat was occupied! True, Kazan-Arena was later reconfigured for the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. But now it’s a football stadium again. And at Rubin’s November 5 home encounter with Liverpool in a League of Europe match the stands were mostly filled up, although the game kicked off at nine in the evening and the autumn weather in Kazan was already chilling.
Experience shows: a newly-built stadium instantly increases attendance by a third. That’s a world trend. It is a totally different matter how to maintain the results achieved. I have no doubts that the potential is far from being tapped to the full.
Persistent work is most crucial. It should be fundamental and systematic, without any extremes. Now tell me: have there been any benefits for our football after the transition to the autumn-spring calendar? I’ve argued all the way: nothing has changed essentially, but for the numerical sequence of rounds. The sole argument in favor is this: the teams that qualify for the European tournaments start playing at once, and not eight months after qualification (a period of time long enough to change half of the line-up) the way it happened before. But still was that a reason enough to break the organization pattern of competitions in all leagues? All thoughts were about the Premier League, while all others, including division one and division two, remained neglected… In the meantime, they had to adjust themselves to the new formula, too. In fact, that decision was pushed through to cater to the interests of top clubs. But let me remind you, both Zenit and CSKA managed to win the UEFA Cup when the original spring-autumn calendar was still in effect…
We are doomed to play football in summer time. There is no other way of going about that business. Russia is a northern country.
- But you still have no plans for getting back to the good old pattern, don’t you?
- A great deal of confusion may occur. First we change everything, then we overturn our own decision… I don’t want to take such moves entirely on my own. May all those concerned speak their minds.
There’ve been media leaks regarding plans for reforming Russian football while getting ready for the 2018 World Cup Finals. I really don’t know where people get such rumors from. Certainly not from me. It is true that at the forthcoming meeting of the Russian Football Union Executive Board I will speak about strategic tasks that have to be addressed. We will be acting surgically and with clock-work precision. We will see what we can do to upgrade the system of holding competitions. But let me say once again – not for the sake of making a revolution.
The quality of domestic football is to be raised. Then fans will start going to the stadiums again. In Britain and in Germany the fans’ worst problem is where to get a spare ticket. That’s the benchmark for us to seek. But we’ve got to be patient. In Britain, football traditions have been nurtured for decades, and there is a great deal we can borrow there. Not just in terms of fan culture, but in the way of telecasting matches. Their level is impressive, indeed!
- Even the highest quality picture on the TV screen won’t make a dull game look better. Our TV people are in no hurry to let Russian football take air time on their broadcasting schedules. They all know too well that its audience ratings are very low.
- I wouldn’t make such generalizations. It’s true that the audiences of federal channels vary a lot. Interests and tastes differ, but the national team’s matches invariably enjoy popularity. The decisive matches with Sweden and Montenegro on Channel One gathered large audiences. As far as I know, only the amateur singers’ contest Golos had a higher rating. If Channel One becomes the Russian Football Union’s permanent partner in telecasting the national team’s matches, I will be happy. It’s always good to do business with professionals!
- And what would you say about the newly-founded sports channel Match TV?
- It’s too early to be sure about anything. We should wait and see. At this point I can tell you that the emergence of a free federal sports channel is highly welcome. Its boss – Tina Kandelaki - is a person of talent and a real enthusiast. Nor is she a novice in the TV industry. I do hope she will manage, although hers is a daunting task, no denying that.
I’ve never made a secret of my critical attitude to what happened to the Sport channel. Created on the eve of the Athens Olympics, that channel with the passage of time was converted to what is Rossiya-2 today, where the share of sports programs has shrunk to 40%. The response was negative. Viewers got very critical. More than once I had to answer questions why such a collapse followed. It’s useless to explain again and again that to be really watchable a channel will have to obtain the rights to telecast top class championships and competitions in various sports. The management of the VGTRK television company for some obscure reasons showed little or no wish to invest into this sort of content. I’ve raised the issue with the VGTRK chief, Oleg Dobrodeyev many times. The effect was zero. They had a good chance to get things going, but they missed it. Now may somebody else have a try. Nature abhors a vacuum.
- The Match TV channel is still embryonic, but it already enjoys great preferences. There have been proposals for granting the exclusive right to the Match TV website to advertise bookmakers and to make money on that. What’s behind this fairy-tale generosity?
- Don’t you pay attention to that! No decision has been made yet. It’s merely a draft, authored by the Ministry of Finance. It was made public especially for all those concerned and interested to read it and to express opinions. Discussions involving experts are still ahead. All parties concerned will say what they think of it. Certainly, there will be an exchange of opinion in the government. That’s a firm rule Dmitry Medvedev established himself. You are very wrong if you think that the adoption of a legal act is a simple procedure. Before a bill gets into the State Duma, it has to be through many rounds of scrutiny. And it may never make its way there if it is rejected at an earlier stage and turned down for revision. Legislators, too, will be looking at the draft from various angles, proposing amendments and then voting in three readings… And then the president will decide if the bill is to be signed into law! The end product sometimes looks very different from what the bill’s brain-father proposed at the beginning.
I have my own questions to ask about the bill, too. For instance, I’m curious why the clubs get no interest deductions from the bookmakers that accept bids on the matches the clubs in question play. How is that? Some have to carry the financial burden to support the sports teams, while others just make money on this. It shouldn’t be this way. Everyone must have a share. Any economist in the know will surely tell you I’m right. The current trend as it is, the sports industry is getting professionalized, while budget funding is to be curtailed, right? Then let’s give thought to how to best protect the clubs’ interests. The broadcasting rights hardly yield anything, bookmakers pay no interest … Tickets are cheap. Attendance is low. Selling beer at stadiums is prohibited. What should the clubs be doing then to earn a living?!
- A couple of questions about the national team. You’ve changed your mind several times, although you could’ve said long ago: Leonid Slutsky will be coaching the national squad part-time till the end of the Euro-2016 Cup Finals. Why wasn’t such a decision made from the outset?
This is the most sensible step of all. We are in the Premier League’s midseason now. The national team has just one more friendly match still to play, while the main preparations for the Euro Cup Finals will commence next spring. What’s the point of doing something that might strip the national championship’s leader, also involved in the European Cups contests, of one of its major strengths? Slutsky knows all candidates for a place in the national team well enough. All of them are in front of his very eyes… I don’t see any reason for changing something at the moment.
- And what next?
- We should wait for the Euro-2016 lots drawing, due in Paris on December 12. The impressive ending of the qualification round and four wins in a row considerably improved our FIFA and UEFA rankings. Now we will be in the second basket together with Italy, Croatia and Switzerland. It remains to be seen what rivals we will have and how well we will perform in France next summer. Then we’ll decide. Lastly, it’s all in Slutsky’s own interests. If we are successful in the Euro-2016 Cup Finals, there will be one type of situation. And if not, a very different one. Possibly, there will be nothing to discuss when the competition is over. An effective contract will provide no protection. Everybody will prefer to see a concrete result. In a word, the coach, too, is not interested in speeding things up.
- Is it possible the Russian Football Union simply cannot afford to buy out Slutsky’s contract with the CSKA? What if it has spent all money on Capello? As one of my colleagues, Yevgeny Dzichkovsky, has said there is no shame in poverty - the real shame is in cheap living.
- Your colleagues are never lost for words. Today they may be telling you this, and tomorrow, turn everything inside out… I’m always in touch with our football guys. Igor Akinfeyev says each time he arrives for a meeting of the national team it’s a great stress for him. Igor is aware of his responsibility. In the meantime, the media people don’t hesitate to write and say whatever may come to mind. Had the national team failed to make its way into the Euro-2016 Finals, the guys would’ve been turned to dust. Their coach, too. And mind you, it would’ve been Slutsky, and not Capello!
Everybody should feel free to criticize. But let’s be doing it impartially and objectively. What’s the use of ruining an athlete’s morale? As soon as I held a meeting with my colleagues at the RFU, the details were at once published in the world web. But those were internal discussions behind closed doors, not meant for outsiders. Sometimes it looks like some people’s real aim is to fan tensions, and not help you have a job done.
The same is true of the Capello affair. What’s the relationship between him and Slutsky’s contract? Only the very lazy ones haven’t said something nasty about the Italian coach. In the meantime, Capello did a great deal to help our football to develop. How come everybody forgot it was Capello who steered the Russian team into the previous World Football Cup finals? He did that after a twelve-year-long interval!
- Qualification for the Euro-2016 Cup Finals was to earn the Italian specialist a hefty bonus. Will the money now go to Slutsky?
- Slutsky has been paid everything he was entitled to. And he will get more. In due time. Don’t you worry about him.
- Some even mentioned a specific reward: one million euros.
- You can’t stop tongues wagging. What if someone says it was a one-billion-euro deal? You won’t expect me to comment on such nonsense, will you? That’s sheer provocation! What did our football need very badly? A foothold. There was no center of decision-making. People were afraid of assuming responsibility. I’ve never had this fear. We’ll sort things out without intervention by self-styled consultants and prompters. We’ll manage!
- The economic crisis has forced one and all to tighten the belts. The World Football Cup’s organizing committee is not an exception, I reckon?
- In the middle of last June the Russian government adopted a resolution on amendments to preparations for hosting the 2018 World Football Cup Finals. The overall budget was cut by 30 billion roubles (an equivalent of $500 million). No further cuts are due. It is stated in the official documents. In two years from now, in accordance with the original plan Russia will have 122 new football facilities, including twelve modern stadiums. It will be a real breakthrough!
Honestly, when the decision was made five years ago Russia would bid for hosting the World Cup, I pursued a certain selfish aim. By virtue of my position of RFU president I was aware that without hosting a major tournament we would not undertake to build any new stadiums for a long while. That we’d have to feel content with what we inherited from last century. The Luzhniki and Dinamo stadiums in Moscow, and the Petrovsky stadium in St. Petersburg…
On December 2, 2010 Russia won the right to host the 2018 World Football Cup. Speaking at a news conference in the evening of the same day President Vladimir Putin said that a budget of 300 billion would be quite enough. That’s the amount of money the government was prepared to reserve in the federal budget to build stadiums, airports, roads and other infrastructures… Lock, stock and barrel. That was five years ago. We haven’t gone far beyond those estimates. These days the overall costs are set at 336 billion rubles of budget money. I am certain that we will fit in with these parameters.
- What’s your clue to cutting corners?
- Optimization. It’s unavoidable. We are searching for new project solutions. Instead of banking guarantees we plan to use direct debiting in case of default on contracts. In cooperation with the Ministry of Industry and Trade we conducted thorough research into the details of building football stadiums to see which foreign parts and components can be manufactured in Russia and replaced with products of domestic manufacture.
We do count on investment, too. For the time being we have dropped the spending items we can do without.
Say, FIFA’s original demand was all cities selected to host the 2018 Cup should have not only the main stadium, but also four training pitches with spectator stands accommodating 500, basic illumination level of 500 lux, locker rooms, and a hall for news conferences. In other words, one training pitch for each team plus one stand-by pitch to be used in bad weather. We managed to persuade FIFA officials that three training pitches in each city (including one stand-by facility) will be quite enough. Summer in Russia is not the time of year when natural calamities strong enough to make both pitches instantly unusable are very likely.
Honestly, I am very pleased to see these small and neat stadiums. In my opinion, they are one of the main assets that we will inherit from the World Cup. We’ll build a hundred and one such sports grounds and hand them over to local children’s sports schools. All of them are being put up with government money. It’s been decided already who will have them in 2018.
We’ve leafed through other programs again with pen in hand to scrupulously revise and recalculate every single item. FIFA had initially requested the maximum accommodation in all cities. We took a closer look at how many hotel rooms will be needed in reality for the teams, the fans and the reporting journalists. We summarized them all to get the basic estimates to rely on. Why should Saransk need several five-star hotels? Who will be using them when the World Cup is over? In the end we agreed that hotels’ capacity should be slashed by 40%, at the same time setting a minimum limit not to be trespassed.
- When you took over the RFU again, the union’s budget had a deficit of about two billion rubles. Over a very brief period of time you managed to half the debt. The question is: how?
- Sometimes I joke I managed to turn the situation from critical to complicated… The payables were large, indeed. First, we carried out an optimization campaign. Secondly, Mr. Alisher Usmanov extended us a helping hand. He agreed to pay the RFU’s salary arrears to Fabio Capello. Also, Usmanov helped us with bonuses to the players for qualifying for the Euro-2016 Cup.
- The Russian Football Union still owes 240 million rubles to Leonid Fedun.
- My predecessors had borrowed money at a certain interest rate, so another fifteen million has to be added to that… The debt was bought out by the Telesport company, which had an unsettled indebtedness to the RFU. An offset was performed. By now we have fully settled all financial issues with the IFD Kapital Group and with Fedun. Fortunately, the problem has been lifted.
- And what are you going to do about the Football House near Taganka Square?
- The story looks like this. In fact we’ve come full circle to get back to square one. When I took over the RFU in the mid-2000’s, the building was semi-finished. The finishing touches were put to it when I was already RFU president. FIFA did invest a certain amount of money. The Football House now belongs to the open joint stock company Moscow Business and Sports Center, in which we have a 54% stake, and the Moscow authorities, 46%. It was a mutually-funded project. There had been a third shareholder, but his stake was eventually bought out. At the moment the RFU has large operating debts, including unpaid electricity, gas and other bills. We have straightened out the situation somewhat lately. We paid part of the debts to avoid a situation where we might be denied utility services and have to do paperwork by candlelight.
The question is what’s next? For the city authorities the Football House is a non-core asset. They are going to sell up their share. My task is to buy out the building to make it RFU property. I would like to finalize what I had failed to accomplish when I led the RFU first time. My successors just did not care about that issue, although settling it then would’ve been far easier. But I believe we will devise a settlement now. Russia’s Football Premier League will get back to the Taganka head office in line with the original idea.
In the longer term I believe that a new technical center of the Russian Football Union might be created. I also contemplate the possibility of opening a training base for the national teams and an office in Luzhniki. There had been such an idea a while ago, but it has remained shelved for six years. I’ve begun to probe into this possibility again slowly but surely.
Whenever I say that football is more than just a game, I really mean it, for I have my own personal experience with this sport. In my younger days, when I had just begun my professional career in inland waterways, I played football. We held what we called a “floating championship.” And I created the first semi-professional football club when I was the administrative head of the Kirov district in Leningrad. That was in the early 1990s. The industrial giant - the Kirov Plant - had had its own team, which, as you may have already guessed, was called Kirovets. I found a sponsor and the club was renamed to Kirovets-Kosmos. We played in division two and, to my recollection, were immensely proud of ourselves.
St. Petersburg’s club Zenit was the next page in my football history. I was the one who corporatized it. At the dusk of the Soviet era there were 35 sports game teams in Leningrad. Most of them were performing well enough: volleyball team Avtomobilist, basketball team Spartak and handball team Neva… Pretty soon the industrial giants and other enterprises started getting rid themselves of sports clubs as non-core assets. When I was still a little boy, my family lived in Russia’s south, in the Kuban River area. We, little kids, were very fond of caroling from door to door. We were given various gifts – mostly sweets and cookies. After visiting four or five households we refused to take ordinary candies - only chocolate. That’s precisely what happened in St. Petersburg. Some smart guys promptly laid hands on factories and ships only to throw sports teams overboard. Together with all social programs and benefits. Why should a private business bear extra spending? Only money-making profit-yielding assets were allowed to stay.
Those were really hard days for sports and athletes. I recall that at a certain point, when I held the position of a deputy mayor, I wrote a memo addressed to Anatoly Sobchak. We were trying to identify various solutions together and studied foreign experience. I suggested converting Zenit into a genuine people’s club to let ordinary fans have their shares. In my mind’s eye I already saw a ceremony where the club’s president would be elected at a stadium by a show of hands… That dream never came true. Zenit has survived, though.
What are the risks privately-owned clubs may be fraught with? The owner may suddenly change one’s mind. Bored with the old toy, he may decide to throw it away. You may remember the Tekstilshchik football club, of the city of Kamyshin, on the Volga River. Occasionally it even played in European level matches. When Boris Brevnov, from Nizhny Novgorod, a man utterly indifferent to football, was appointed to run the UES of Russia, Tekstilshchik’s main sponsor, the team was disbanded.
- It is Zenit’s good fortune that Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller is a football fan.
- I remember well the day when we asked him for the first time to help the club somehow… He is well aware of businesses’ social responsibilities. Gazprom invests an annual six billion rubles into building sports facilities across the nation. Cheboksary now has a great ice stadium. Or take the indoor track-and-field stadium in St. Petersburg… Just recently Ingushetia’s head Yunus-bek Yevkurov was at my office to tell me that Gazprom had pledged to build a new sports complex in his republic.
But I must tell you that I am strongly against using the administrative resource in sports. Do you remember what was happening in Russian football over the recent years? For instance, one large company had been strongly recommended to agree to be Premier League’s general sponsor. The business giant obeyed. But as soon as the government’s grip eased, those business people quietly waltzed away. I don’t need such partners. At best they may be good only for donating a lump sum to patch a budget hole. We seek systemic cooperation only with those who are interested in long-term relations with the RFU, those who understand what brand capitalization is all about. This is really important.
I was the one who signed the sponsorship contract with Volkswagen for the national team. True, the automobile manufacturer has experienced great problems lately, but support for sports is part of the company’s philosophy. I am certain that this will be so further on. In the meantime, Volkswagen, as you may know, has its own football club in Wolfsburg, which plays in the Champions’ League in the same group with our CSKA… That’s what I call serious approach!
- But why then Nikolay Tolstykh was unsuccessful as RFU chief? After all he is one of your men. You supported his candidature in the election.
- I never rate people as mine or somebody else’s. That’s against my principles. Apparently, I manage to achieve certain results because I rely on the human resources that are available. Everyone is at his level. When I was appointed to lead the Sports Ministry, almost nobody was replaced. And I’ve kept the RFU team intact. May those people who cope with their duties go on working, I said: “Dear colleagues, you all know very well what the economic situation is like. The RFU has a staff of 166. That’s too many for a non-governmental organization that does not produce anything on its own. Sports are our core activity, and we should be working to develop it. Not only professional football, but grassroots football, which is for everyone, and children’s and youth football in particular. We shall keep the Refereeing and Inspection Committee, since both FIFA and UEFA insist this body should stay independent. As far as everything else is concerned, we shall see and make a decision in due time. The finance, law, medical and technical committees are all backup divisions. What is it they do in reality? If their effectiveness is close to naught, then we will tell them ‘Thank you and good bye’.”
In the past the RFU president had a group of aides, nearly one for each day of the week. One for Tuesdays, one for Wednesday, etc. Of course, the system should be streamlined. No massive layoffs are due, but 10%-15% of the personnel will have to take their leave. The quality of work will remain unaffected. Promise.
There are different administration patterns. Normally, the federation president’s realm of responsibility is strategy and global matters, while the general secretary is responsible for finance and the performance of the administrative staff. Roughly speaking he is the CEO. We’ve had the position of general director since the era of Vyacheslav Koloskov. That’s functional redundancy. I am not going to stage any revolutions, but in the long term the general secretary should also be the general director. What’s the point of breeding unnecessary divisions and branches? In the current situation I cannot afford to hire more people and inflate the spending on wages instead of cutting it…
- Are you being paid the president’s salary in the RFU?
- No, only that of a government minister. It was this way all along. In relations with the RFU I am a giver, not a taker.
Born November 8, 1959 in Luhansk, Ukraine. In 1982, Andrei Vandenko graduated from the Kiev National University of Taras Shevchenko specializing in journalism. Since 1989, he lives and works in Moscow. Vandenko has more than 20 years of experience in the interview genre. He was published in the major part of top Russian media outlets and is a winner of professional awards.