World Cup Doping Scandal Coming For Russia? These Stats Are Eye-Opening


When the 2018 World Cup was awarded to Russia by FIFA, we all felt comfortable that these two upstanding entities were completely on the up-and-up. Shockingly, yesterday, the Daily Mail published a piece detailing how FIFA has disregarded evidence of institutional coverups of doping cases in Russian football. That includes a claim that investigators have uncovered at least 155 cases, 34 of which produced enough documentation to justify disciplinary proceedings by FIFA.

FIFA announced before the World Cup began that they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute any of the current members of the Russian World Cup team.

Meanwhile, Russia has gotten off to a blistering start, leading all teams in goal differential through two games, with eight goals scored. They came into the tournament ranked outside the top 60 in the FIFA world rankings and do not have players who star in the top leagues in Europe, with almost all of them based in Russia.

And now we see notes like the below, showing that Russian players are collectively covering more distance in their matches than every other team in the World Cup.

That tweet was from right after Russia’s second match against Egypt, and before any other teams had played a second match. I went through the matches that have occurred since. Serbia (against Switzerland) was at 116 km for the match, now in 2nd, though Russia is still way ahead in average across two matches.

Let’s put that number in some perspective. It includes all players, including the goalkeeper. Once you take out the Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, the Russian outfield players (combined with their subs) are averaging 11.3 kilometers run over the course of a match. That’s more than a full kilometer per player over the average outfield player for other World Cup squads, and 0.4 kilometers per player more than the average of any other team (Serbia and Australia).

Now, kilometers covered can depend on a lot of factors, such as game flow, how much slow build-up attacking play and possession there is in one end, versus counterattacks and flowing action. It can also depend on game score and tactics. For example, a team with a lead might play either a high possession game with more control, or defend in their own end and not risk exposure. Of course, that doesn’t really help a Russian case here. The other five matches where a team won by 3 or more goals in this World Cup, as Russia has in both against inferior opponents, saw the victors run less than the average (103.4 km combined on average, versus 116.5 by Russia).

The distance covered by each player, being tracked and reported by FIFA, is not in an of itself strong evidence of doping. Teams have different styles and different approaches (and individual players have different stamina levels). However, Russia’s history with doping–including just being prevented from claiming medals under the Russian name at the latest Winter Olympics as athletes individually competed–makes it hard to dismiss suspicions outright.

At least we can all trust FIFA to be open and honest, right?