Who is this man, why is he smiling, and what does he have to do with whether the US hosts the World Cup in the next 14 years?
Read on, my freinds, and all shall be made clear.
To the surprise of virtually no one at all, USSF made it official yesterday when Sunil Gulati announced that they have entered bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup.
Of course the reason that he's bidding on both is that Sepp Blatter convinced the FIFA Executive Committee that taking bids on two WC Finals at the same time meant double the bribes, double the deluxe travel accomodations and double the ass kissing from governments and federations across the globe.
Never mind that probably half of FIFA's 24 Corrupt Old Bastards - excuse me, I meant to say the Executive Committee, will either be dead and buried by 2022 or so senile that they won't care anyway (Blatter would be 86 in 2022; Jack Warner would be 79, but there's not much question that he intends to bequeath his CONCACAF empire to his son Daryan, so it'll be like he never left) and will have been replaced by some other greedy gangsters who'll be pretty ticked off that ther predecessors soaked up all the graft that should have rightfully been theirs.
But since there's no honor among theives, those guys will have to either a) just go without or b) start taking bids for the 2034, 2038 and 2042 World Cups to make up for it.
(You know, as I was writing that I was trying to be facetious, but then I realized that that is exactly what they WILL do in 2020 or so. Sepp has showed them the way.)
So what are our chances? Well of course it's impossible to say for sure, since there are a whole bunch of bribes that will be passed around between now and the vote in 2010. And for a man who won election to the FIFA Presidency by having Adi Dassler's bag men slip manila envelopes full of US$100 bills under Swiss hotel room doors at 3 AM the night before the election (the going rate was reportedly $50,000 in return for a vote for Blatter), Sepp knows that this is his last big chance to make a killing and he's going to make the most of it.
And while the 94 World Cup in the US was an outrageously lucrative event, one which stunned even Sepp Blatter with the amount of money that rolled in, when we're talking 2018 and 2022, Sepp knows he may not even be around and/or in charge of FIFA any more, so what he can get right now is going to be a lot more important than how much money gets stuffed in FIFA's various bank accounts in 2022.
Which brings us to the question above.
The man in the picture is, to put it bluntly, a murdering Russian mob boss named Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov. His freinds call him "Taiwanchik" or "Little Taiwanese" a reference to his distinctly Asian aspect.
His enemies - those who have not already been machine gunned on the streets of some European city - call him a fugitive from international justice.
Alik, who founded his fortune selling leftover Russian arms to Asian and African militias, thugs and dictators, is a big sports fan. Huge. As reported by the incomparable Andrew Jennings, ONE OF ALIK'S MORE LUCRATIVE ENTEPISES neatly combined his love of sports with his love of money: he recruited Russian weightlifters and wrestlers for a sort of "collection agency" which was surprisingly effective at getting debtors to pony up. Imagine that.
In fact, he loves sports so much that he was the man who bribed the French skating judges at the Salt Lake Olympics a few years back. As a result, he is wanted by the FBI on an Interpol warrant. But after getting the Italians to let him out of jail he fled back to Russia where of course criminal justice is a matter of the size of your wallet.
And Alik's wallet is really, really big.
So big, in fact, that he is able to get really important people to come to Russia - since of course he can't leave - and pal around with him.
People like, for example, IOC Director and FIFA President Sepp Blatter:
The smiling, happy guy standing with them, who arranged this meeting in a Moscow watering hole, is the head of the Russian Football Federation and a member of the FIFA Executive committee.
Are things becoming any clearer yet?
Combined with guys like Australian Frank Lowry who, as I wrote previously, is one of the richest men in the world, entertains on a lavish - even by FIFA standards - scale and who just got the Australian government to give him $45 million to conduct his World Cup campaign despite the fact that all he needs is 13 guys to vote yes.
You do the math.
Then of course there are the interests of Jack Warner, who has extensive connections in travel, tourism and communications in Mexico, another WC bidder. As CONCACAF President, he stands to make a fortune off of any WC held in his region, since regional officials are given a tremendous amount of authority.
And while he could certainly do pretty well financially on a USA World Cup, we have all those pesky laws and transparency rules and stuff that the FBI would happily pursue. Compare that to Mexico's somewhat more...shall we saqy "lenient" business atmosphere and it's fairly clear which CONCACAF bid Jack will be backing behind closed doors. It's not even close.
We could go on in this vein for some time, but the point is already made: while in theory a US World Cup might be the best thing for FIFA as a whole, the last thing this horse race is about is what's good for FIFA.
And with Europe sure to get one of the two finals - 2018 would be my bet - that leaves only one that we're actually competing for against the likes of Russia, Australia, Australia and others, among them China and Egypt.
In a straight up election, I think the US wins in a walk, but this being FIFA, "straight up" isn't a term that ever comes to mind.