With international condemnation growing over the choice of Qatar as the location for the 2022 football World Cup, both due to the practicalities of hosting the tournament in winter and the increasingly apparent flaunting of the human rights of those building the stadia, it's hard to imagine that the Russian Football Union aren't breathing a collective sigh of relief. While the country is coming under increased scrutiny thanks to everything from questionable voting procedures in general elections to quashing free speech, it all remains oddly serene on the footballing front.
It's not that Russian football is without its problems - far from it. Racism still rains down from the terraces on a regular basis, recently being aimed at Manchester City's Yaya Touré, who promptly and with plenty of just cause called for the 2018 competition, which is to be hosted by the country, to be boycotted. He also raised the question as to why Russia, despite endemic problems that should prevent it from hosting (or even wanting to host) such an inherently multicultural event, appear to be flying under the radar when compared to Qatar.
A comprehensive lack of racial tolerance from many Russian fans is not the only impediment to a successful celebration of the beautiful game. President Vladimir Putin - now in what is effectively his fourth term of power, and his third at the pinnacle of Russian politics - has considerably "tightened restrictions on freedom of assembly and other human rights" since his recent reelection according to the Congressional Research Service's Jim Nichols. Assembly rights are one of the most hotly contested issues, with Occupy Abai (the Moscow equivalent to the Occupy Wall Street movement) encampments being routinely roused by armed police and various bans being put into place for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi. Putin's popularity has never been lower, with recent polls suggesting over 40% of the population want him ousted, and some commentators have even gone as far to predict that by the time the World Cup is upon us, the country could be in the full throes of a revolution.
Whilst both countries have serious issues that call into question their ability to pull off the event, those belonging to the oil-rich Middle Eastern state carry much more potential impact for the actual sporting side of the Cup. The major issue - the aforementioned calendar change - will require shifts in three league seasons of most of Europe's major leagues, and many have pointed out that the second half of the 2022 season in particular may prove a damp squib as players return from national team duty jaded. The communal carnival that is the fan areas, which feature unlikely scenes of Colombians rubbing shoulders with Czechs and Brazilians carousing with Bosnians will also take a hit, chiefly due to the strict illegality of any alcohol. Russia on the other hand, with the oft repeated generalisation of the country's stock vodka diet, should have no issue meeting this criterion - provided, of course, that those doing the drinking are of a particular ethnic makeup and sexual persuasion.
The fact that Russia and Yugoslavia before them are a well-established player in international football having produced several stars through the years is also working in their favour. Qatar's Stars League averages around 5,000 attendees per match, making it just slightly better attended than England's fourth tier. Their Fifa ranking (106th in the world) has them alongside the likes Burundi and St. Kitts and Nevis. Having never qualified for a World Cup, anything other than being dumped out of the group stages on the back of three losses will be cause for national celebration. Fifa spoke of the need to "spread" the game to parts of the world not already enamoured with it when they awarded Qatar the competition, but the question remains - of all the places they could have had it, why there and not a country that would welcome all comers?
Increasingly strained relations between the West and an ever more assertive and boisterous Moscow - demonstrated by the recent detention of Greenpeace activists in the Arctic - are also undoubtedly playing some role in Russia's easy ride. For politicians and footballing figures, Qatar is a relatively easy target, posing little power of rebuttal, particularly as the damning evidence - such as the case of French footballer Zahir Belounis - mounts. Russia, with all of its might and power, is an altogether different prospect. This goes some way to explaining the reticence of those criticising the Qatari regime to come out and do the same for the former Soviet state, and why the suggestion of a boycott from Touré was shouted down by figures such as José Mourinho, who is in the employ of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich as manager of Chelsea.
Fifa have always been a much maligned operation, often expected to spin a simply impossible number of plates to keep all clubs, countries and confederations happy, but the current disarray they find themselves in - eight members of its Executive Committee suspended or forced to resign as a result of misconduct allegations, their internal investigations into corruption being branded as "lenient or ridiculous" by the chairman of the independent governance committee - are entirely self-inflicted. Whilst Russia and Qatar may be at opposite ends of the political spectrum - the Kremlin views the Qatari regime as a major destabalising factor in Syria and the Russian Caucasus - they present equal problematic potential for the World Cup. Sepp Blatter and co. should just be grateful that for the moment, one is deflecting attention from the other.