The ire of much of the world is trained on the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine believed responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 and the man who many say enabled them. President Obama said Russian President Vladimir Putin had "direct responsibility" to help with the investigation and aftermath of the tragic plane crash, which claimed the lives of all 298 people on board. European leaders are discussing new tough measures on Russia, which will likely come in the form of new sanctions.
But does that really punish Putin? Europe's ultimate dependence on Russia as a market and key source of energy means its bark is often worse than its bite. And by all accounts, Putin appears to be hardening his own position, fueled by record approval ratings at home.
So now, some are venturing a new line of attack: depriving Russia of the privilege of hosting the 2018 soccer World Cup.
"If Putin doesn’t actively cooperate on clearing up the plane crash, the soccer World Cup in Russia in 2018 is unimaginable," Peter Beuth, the interior minister of the German state of Hesse, told the mass-market Bild newspaper.
Other conservative German politicians joined the chorus, including Michael Fuchs, a senior leader in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats party."FIFA football association should think about whether Moscow is an appropriate host if it can’t even guarantee safe airways," he said, referring to the organization that runs the global game, and suggested that Germany or other Western European countries would make able replacement hosts.
The World Cup, as seen in the past month in Brazil, is an extraordinary moment for any host country--a chance to burnish one's image on the global stage and build up a groundswell of patriotic good feeling. Historically, it has a strong appeal for autocrats, who tend to place more stock in such nationalist spectacles than politicians in more democratic societies. The 2018 tournament is intended to be Putin's next great showcase after the lavish Sochi Olympics this year, taking place across a vast expanse of geography from the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad to the foothills of the Ural mountains.
"Putin believes that a World Cup in Russia can be sold to his people as an endorsement of his rule," wrote the Daily Beast's Tunku Vardarajan in a column earlier this week. "Why should the world become an accomplice in a dictator’s Ponzi scheme of pride?" Vardarajan goes on:
In all of this lies the chance, also, for FIFA to redeem itself. Under Sepp Blatter, its interminable head, the body has been opaque and corrupt. Now is the moment for FIFA and Blatter to take a rare moral stand and not act as obstacles to the revocation of Russia’s hosting rights.
But there's little indication that FIFA will heed such an opportunity. At present, FIFA officials have voiced a few concerns about Russia's stadium preparedness in four years' time, but there is no precedent for a country being denied the right to host the tournament on political grounds, especially after it has already been awarded it.
FIFA is still dealing with the backlash of its controversial awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the even more conspicuous decision to host the 2022 tournament in Qatar, a tiny Gulf state with little soccer history, few existing stadiums and soaring temperatures likely to make the competition a health risk for fans and players alike.
Allegations of corruption surround the bidding process that led to these choices and have embittered the soccer authorities in many countries in Western Europe. The head of the English Football Association recently likened Blatter to North Korean despot Kim Jong Un.
The football association of the Netherlands -- the country that suffered the most in the crash of MH17 -- has been a bit more circumspect about the current uproar.
"The Dutch football association is aware that a future World Cup in Russia stirs great emotion among all football lovers and the next of kin in the Netherlands," it announced in a statement. "Standing still to remember our enormous loss is now the priority. The association believes it is more appropriate to conduct a discussion over a future World Cup in Russia at a later moment, once the investigation into the disaster has been completed."