Last month, as former Russian military intelligence officer and British double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia lay in a critical condition in hospital following a poison attack in a provincial English town, the man widely believed to have orchestrated the Novichok poisoning awkwardly juggled a football with the FIFA president as part of a shiny, happy PR exercise – Vladimir Putin was marking the 100-day countdown to the event which will have all eyes on him: his World Cup.
With the largest sporting spectacle on the globe on the horizon, calls for a boycott of the tournament in the wake of the Salisbury nerve agent attack gained serious traction, ranging from announcements by leading foreign diplomats of their intentions not to attend to threats of complete withdrawals from competing nations. Grasping a rare opportunity to say something of substance, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson went so far as to draw parallels between the 2018 World Cup and Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda vehicle and reinforcement of his regime; “I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right. It is an emetic prospect of Putin glorying in this sporting event.” Speaking to Channel Five, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova echoed her president’s denials of Russian involvement in the attack, claiming that a boycott of the tournament had been the international community’s intentions all along; “They will use any means. Their minds are only on that football and God forbid it should touch a Russian football field.”
While the nerve agent attack on foreign soil was the latest in a string of events which have turned his nation into a pariah state, the 2018 World Cup will undoubtedly be Putin’s opportunity to project his relevance to the world, while fortifying a ruthless reign which has amassed a considerable rap sheet over the past two decades.
Putin’s rise to power was accelerated by the 1999 bombings of the 6/3 Kashirskoye apartment buildings in Moscow, which killed 121 and – blaming the attack on Chechen separatists – led Russia’s new Prime Minister to launch a second offensive into the region, even more bloody than the first. Since then, he has successfully eliminated and banned opposition movements and candidates, has censored, imprisoned and murdered journalists, labelled human rights activists as national traitors, banned minority religious groups, and legalised discrimination of the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch currently maintains that “Russia is more repressive than it has ever been in the post-Soviet era.”
Internationally, the annexations of Crimea in Ukraine and Abkhazia/South Ossetia in Georgia, along with the sustaining of Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad’s assault on the Syrian people, and interference in the 2016 US presidential election, indicate that Putin and his fellow gangsters are forcefully pushing to re-assert post-USSR Russia as a regional bully. After nearly two decades in power, Putin’s legacy has been to reverse any of the attempts to move towards a functioning democracy during the 90’s while maintaining a corrupt economic system that disfranchises working-class Russians.
Any hopes that FIFA, football’s governing body, would display some moral backbone and reconsider the 2018 World Cup hosts given Putin’s many acts of shithousery over the past few years were dispelled when a 2015 FBI investigation uncovered Kremlin-esque levels of corruption within the organisation. It was noted that a considerable number of bribes changed hands prior to the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups – the latter to an even more reprehensible regime in Qatar. The truth is that FIFA, the supposed keepers of “the people’s game,” has always been for sale to the highest bidder. When a moral decision is required, the organisation is fond of throwing up its hands and saying “football and politics should not mix”, but history proves that that is simply not the case: Russia and Qatar are not the first countries with questionable human rights records to host a World Cup.
Back in the early 1930s, when bidding to host the follow-up to the inaugural World Cup took place, it was the promise made by Giovanni Mauro that set Italy apart as candidates. On behalf of the ruling fascist party and its dictator-in-chief Benito Mussolini, the Italian government promised FIFA that it would cover all losses of the 1934 World Cup if they were incurred. It was an offer which the fledgling federation couldn’t refuse. Although he was no fan of the sport, Mussolini viewed the World Cup as the perfect opportunity to showcase the exceptionalism of Italian infrastructure to the world, while also fuelling the fervent nationalism which brought him to power. Following Italy’s victory in the ’34 final, Il Popolo d’Italia, Mussolini’s fascist newspaper, ran the headline, “In the name and in the presence of Il Duce, the Azzurri win a new world title.” Despite the precarious economic state of the country, the prestige of the 1934 World Cup and the good press it received helped to keep Il Duce in power until his gruesome death in the final days of World War II.
Some 44 years after Italy emerged victorious on home soil, Argentina did likewise. Having been awarded hosting rights back in 1966, by 1978 the South American nation was under the iron fist of a brutal and oppressive military junta which had come to power two years prior in a US-backed coup. With a global audience watching, the Argentinian government, led by General Jorge Videla, planned to use the World Cup to obscure the terror that it raged upon its citizens, promising a “World Cup of Peace” and instructing “all patriotic Argentines to unite behind the national flag.”
In spite of the pervading threat of state-backed violence and detention in torture camps, dissent was still voiced by the populace via both subtle (black bands painted on the base of the goalposts) and overt (marches by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo commemorating the thousands of innocent “disappeared”) means throughout the tournament. Amid numerous instances of blatant cheating and dirty tricks, including amphetamine-fueled players, tortured fans, intimidation of officials and match fixing, ultimately it was the military junta that emerged triumphant when Mario Kempes inspired La Albiceleste to a 3-1 win over a Cruyff-less Dutch side in the final.
In the ensuing euphoria, millions of Argentinians dared to celebrate this first world title publicly, believing that the victory was for them and not the military. They were right of course, as striker Leopoldo Luque recalled: “We laboured under a huge responsibility to win the tournament for our people and help them to forget their suffering. How could we not win the World Cup for these people?” History would rule however, that Argentina’s oppressors had succeeded in their aims of portraying images of national unity, which permitted them to tighten their grip on power – until 1983 and the aftermath of the Falklands War – prolonging the terror perpetuated on the nation’s people.
This summer’s World Cup is arguably viewed with much more trepidation and unease as the 1978 version. Significant problems in and around stadiums in Russia have only intensified these feelings: racism in the stands is prevalent, most recently evident during the March friendly with France in St Petersburg, for which the Russian FA was fined by FIFA. Many also fear a repeat of the hooliganism perpetrated by Russian fans in Marseilles during Euro 2016, which was condoned by some Russian politicians. Although the authorities will look to keep a lid on the violence this summer, the growing links between organised neo-Nazi hooligan groups and far-right politicians in Russia is deeply worrying.
Fans travelling to Russia have been advised not to fly flags for fear of inciting local thugs, while gay fans have been warned against holding hands or showing public displays of affection. The sense that this will be the traditional festival of football, where everyone can distract themselves from the horrors of the modern world for a month, seems far-fetched to say the least.
As a nation with a proud footballing history and tradition, the Russian people deserve to host a World Cup – but the Russian government does not have the right to use football to sustain their oppression. Aside from the threats to world peace, its current authoritarian political system will ensure that the vast revenue streams from the competition will not reach the ordinary citizens, instead sitting with the cronies and oligarchs at the top; this unfortunately echoes the looting of the country’s natural resources by those same people following the collapse of communism.
Football is the most popular sport in the world – a truly global game, played on the streets and in the parks of every nation on earth; beloved by all genders, races, social backgrounds and creeds. In an increasingly globalized world, it can level nations, regardless of how rich, poor, big or small they are. Despite the perceived decline in the relevance of international football, the World Cup remains the sport’s showcase event. As someone who has always been passionate about the game and captivated by the World Cup, I find myself in a compromised position when it comes to supporting this tournament: I want to see beautiful, exhilarating football, but I know that a successful 2018 World Cup equals a victory for Putin and everything he stands for. I am not alone in feeling that the World Cup is no longer being ‘hosted’, but being ‘kidnapped’.
As a consequence, being one of the co-founders of this site, Post Pravda will on no level help maintain any illusions that this World Cup is nothing more than a moral and political victory for a dangerous and morally bankrupt state. We will not promote The Five Best Bars in Rostov-Don for Icelandic and Croatian fans, nor will we be sharing viral videos of cute moments of fans singing in the streets of Kazan. We really don’t give a fuck how Gosha Rubchinskiy is collaborating with Adidas for the World Cup. We will portray this as nothing less than an unnecessary egotistical waste of public money in a country with a soaring poverty rate that is being used to prop up a grotesquely broken government.
We wish zero ill will towards either local or foreign fans. As a publication committed to social justice, however, we see any support of this tournament as legitimizing oppression. Our only concern in terms of this World Cup is giving voice to those that look to disrupt and reveal the absolutely moral emptiness of the current Putin regime. Football should be celebrated for its ability to showcase the beauty of collaboration, equality, selflessness, and hard work. However, unless Russia is removed as the host or makes an existential shift, then FIFA and the Russian government can go take a similar suggestion to the one Mick McCarthy was given in 2002: “stick your World Cup up your arse.”
– by Klemens and Ciaran