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Fear, Conspiracy, And Loathing As Russians React To FIFA Arrests

Many Russians on social media were quick to come to FIFA President Sepp Blatter's defense following the arrest of several senior soccer officials on corruption charges. (file photo)
Many Russians on social media were quick to come to FIFA President Sepp Blatter's defense following the arrest of several senior soccer officials on corruption charges. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Before the Kremlin commented on the shocking legal drama unfolding over alleged activities at global soccer authority FIFA, the Russian Internet and other media lit up as Russians reacted to news of investigations that could cast a harsh light on Russia's successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

Swiss authorities on May 27 arrested senior soccer officials for alleged corruption in connection with a U.S. case targeting FIFA executives and launched their own criminal proceedings relating to the way the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 were awarded to Russia and Qatar.

From the droll to the pugnacious, Russian commentary blended jokes at the expense of Russia's World Cup bid, fears that Russia could lose its 2018 host status, the usual smattering of conspiracy theories, and a healthy dose of anti-Americanism.

The latter dovetailed with the comment that the Russian Foreign Ministry finally released in the evening, calling the arrests "the latest case of illegal extraterritorial application of American legislation."

"We again insistently call on Washington to stop trying to set itself up as a judge far outside its borders," Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said in the statement.

That message was echoed by a doctored photograph posted on Twitter, apparently by someone in Belarus, that showed two burly FBI agents wrestling a man made to look like FIFA President Sepp Blatter to the ground.

The official Russian comment came many hours after early morning trolls were on the prowl on Twitter, with several undersubscribed Russian-language accounts pumping out identical messages casting the investigation into FIFA as an anti-Russian conspiracy.

"The West is degenerating," said one tweeter. "The USA want to take the football World Cup away from Russia.":

By afternoon, Russia's widely read Sovietsky Sport publication was conducting a poll on its website, asking readers about possible conspiracies.

The survey asks if the real reason for the investigation is: a "conspiracy against Russia," an attempt to oust FIFA President Sepp Blatter, whose reelection bid was set to be decided on May 29, or an internal battle within FIFA.

Over at pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia, Valery Chukhry, the former head of FIFA in Moscow, said the "arrests in Zurich are in no way a coincidence. It was all planned beforehand" to coincide with Blatter's reelection effort.

Chukhry warned that the investigation could threaten Russia and Qatar's host status: "After all, all the independent investigations that have been conducted in the last two years linked to accusations by the English, have also touched Russia."

"Looks like that's it," wrote "Vsyo Plokho" (Everything Is Bad):

"My reaction to the FIFA scandal," wrote Mysli Persidenta:

Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny wrote simply, "Oops," as it became clear the Swiss investigation would touch on Russia's 2018 championships:

Others bristled at the notion, mooted by, among others, United States Senator John McCain, that Russia's host status should be revoked.

Russian-language Twitter user "HigherCause" reveled in a FIFA statement that appeared to affirm Russia would remain host of the 2018 event.

"FIFA sent McCain off on erotic travels with his requests to take WC-2018 from Russia":

In comments carried by news agencies, Russian State Duma deputy Igor Ananskikh said the investigation "in no way concerns Russia directly. All the talk that Russia could lose its host status for World Cup 2018 is completely unfounded."

But the satirists were out in force, joking that Russia wasted its money on bribes to get the World Cup and had been found out.

Fake_MIDRF, a satirical account posing as the Russian Foreign Ministry, wrote: "The money we took from pensioners, orphans, the sick – and gave to greedy bureaucrats at FIFA, was spent in vain.":

"We protest against the brazen interference of the U.S. prosecutor in Russia's internal affairs in FIFA.":

Pavel Chikov, the chairman of the Agora human rights association, on Twitter zeroed in on recent proposals from the State Duma that the country should use prison labor as a cheap workforce to build infrastructure at the World Cup.

"They got the soccer World Cup with a bribe, then forced prisoners to build the stadiums, and stole the money.":

Meanwhile, some Russians rallied around FIFA President Sepp Blatter despite a poll by Transparency International posted on May 26 which found that almost four out of five football fans believe he shouldn't seek reelection.

"America, don't touch Blatter. Whatever he's like, and he's family," Roman Trushechkin, a football commentator and sports journalist, wrote on Twitter:

"I hope that Blatter wins the presidential elections and almost don't doubt that he will manage now. These morons really don't know how to work.":

Lawmaker Ananskikh joined the well-wishers: "It is probably not a coincidence that the arrests have happened two days before the FIFA presidential elections, but, having said that, I don't think that they will influence the results of the elections. If Blatter takes part in them, he will of course win."

Other Twitter users joined in the international criticism of Blatter.

"Joseph Blat," wrote Innostrany Agent (Foreign Agent), punning on Blatter's name and "blat," the Russian word for crony connections:

Vsyo Plokho mocked Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko over his English-language skills after reports -- later denied by Mutko -- that he had been summoned for questioning in Switzerland.

"Ai dont nou enisink ebaut korapshan in FIFA.":

An English-language parody account of Vladimir Putin alluded to how an inquiry in November into the awarding of the 2018 World Cup bid hit a dead-end after Russia said it had destroyed the computers it used for its bid and could not provide evidence.

Twitter user MaryEl wrote in Russian:

FIFA: the planned world championship in Russia will take place. The money has already been divided, the kickbacks decided," added FIFA:

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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