SPORTS

Stripping Russia and Qatar of World Cups could spread toxic fallout

06/18/2015 09:28 EDT | Updated 06/18/2016 05:59 EDT
PARIS - The opportunity to score points by bashing FIFA, Russia and Qatar was too good for the parliamentarians to pass up. One by one, they lined up to take shots. It was the political equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel: easy.

"FIFA is a sick organization," said one. "A many headed monster," ''the rotting core of the once beautiful game," said two others.

And although representing countries flung far and wide — Estonia, France, Ireland, Germany, Austria, et cetera — many of the speakers found common cause in the idea of stripping the World Cup from Russia and Qatar, especially if the 2018 and 2022 hosts are found to have bribed FIFA voters.

But this talk-fest in the European Parliament last week lacked a vital ingredient: another side to the story. None of the more than 40 MEPs who spoke talked about the consequences, about how Russia and Qatar could lash out against such a humiliating body blow, if it ever comes to that.

Might they retaliate by switching off gas and oil they supply to the world? Throw spanners into the works of international diplomacy? Withhold trade and investment?

Here are possible repercussions to consider:

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PRICKLY PUTIN: Stripping Russia would confirm President Vladimir Putin's impression, which many Russians share, that "the West is out to get him," says Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow.

"They will blame the west, they will view it as an American plot, essentially," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

A wounded Russia could become even pricklier to negotiate with on big issues, none football-related, including but not limited to: restoring peace to Ukraine and Syria, preventing Iran from building a nuclear bomb and preserving fragile ecosystems.

"Russia would probably take this more seriously than any imaginable event on the global landscape," says Jeremy Kinsman, a Canadian former ambassador to Moscow, also speaking in an AP phone interview. "It would completely alienate Russians, who are already totally alienated."

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GULF BRIDGED: Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbours don't always see eye-to-eye. But they'd likely unite if the 2022 tournament is moved, opening a rupture between the west and its suppliers of energy.

"Ultimately this would be seen as an attack on the entire Gulf," says Michael Stephens at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think-tank. "They all hate each other behind closed doors: They squabble, they bitch, they fight. But if you come against one, you come against the collective."

"The relationship would be affected for the best part of a decade," he said. "It would take a lot of re-engagement to fix. It would be very, very damaging."

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ARAB ANGER: Depriving the Middle East of its first World Cup "will be seen by hundreds of millions of Arabs and more than a billion Muslims and other west Asians as proof of the west's bad faith," says Qatar's former ambassador to Washington, Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa.

But Muslim extremists will be delighted, citing this as evidence that the west doesn't respect Muslims or treat Muslim partners as equals.

"They will be so happy if this happens," al-Khalifa told the AP. They'll say, "'You see what they have done to you?'"

In Russia, hard-line nationalists who want "a much more closed economy, to have less to do with the west, to build up (Russian) armed forces" would be strengthened, said Brenton, the former British ambassador.

"Every effort would be made to exploit any such decision ...," agrees James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador, "to strengthen the case that, 'You see, we've told you we're under siege, that people are out to destroy us.'"

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BUT MONEY TALKS: Ultimately, trade and investment would keep Russia, Qatar and the west glued together. Russia might threaten to reduce energy exports, but is too dependent on that revenue to actually turn off taps, at least for long. Same goes for Qatar.

Because it knows its massive gas and oil reserves won't last forever, Qatar is squirreling away vast wealth in nest-eggs overseas. Al-Khalifa, the former ambassador, gave short shrift to the suggestion that Qatari investment funds could hit back by withdrawing some of their billions from Europe and elsewhere. He also brushed off any possibility of Qatar booting out U.S. military forces stationed in the emirate.

"Investment does not have emotions, political connotations. You invest because you want to make a return," he said. "We have to isolate the issue of 2022, and the issue of taking it away or not, from other issues. We should not mix them. We are very clear about this."

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BOTTOM LINE: Qatar and Russia deny having corrupted FIFA voters. U.S. and Swiss investigators are digging to see if that's true.

If wrongdoing is proved, taking away World Cups would be the nuclear option.

Those calling for that button to be pressed should give the toxic fallout some thought.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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