On an early December evening in the Kremlin’s State Palace, it was not just the groups and path to the final of the 2018 World Cup that were set, but also the stage for something deeper; something bigger – the game around the game.
The very location of the draw bombastically proclaimed what we already knew – this is about something more than kicking a ball around. We will be witnessing the final pieces being put in place for the most political and politicised World Cup ever, and maybe the most political and politicised sporting event ever.
The boycotted Olympic Games of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 have a strong argument as regards the latter, but the very fact they came at the height of the Cold War only deepens the debate over this one, given how the long-term political consequences of that global stand-off only created the context for this tournament.
That Vladimir Putin doesn’t really like football – Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov couldn’t guarantee even days before the event that the President would attend the draw – doesn’t take away from that, but instead only emphasises the power of the game and its political influence.
It isn’t too long ago that German politician Michael Fuchs argued that the only real punishment for Russia following the fallout of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash would be removing them as hosts of a football tournament. Alarming, really, in that Russia appear to be almost unpunishable in political terms while we must ask if the sporting authorities really want to – given the feet-dragging over the state-sponsored doping that has been discovered across multiple sports.
The country’s authorities initially wanted to stage the World Cup to serve as a crowning moment in a long-term plan to reposition and reshape its image across the globe. That image has certainly changed in the time since that controversial awarding of the tournament in December 2010, but largely because of the repositioning and reshaping of global politics that Russia has been so central to.
It has also further altered and nuanced the context of this World Cup.
Now, what is undeniably the world’s biggest global mega-event will take place in what is arguably the most politically influential country and certainly one of the most debated countries, at a time when the international political landscape is at its most delicate since the end of the Cold War, and when that very country is accused of playing a key role in that process – not least with the meddling in foreign elections. Perhaps, given what may happen with the Mueller investigation in the coming months, it is for the best that the USA so surprisingly failed to qualify.
But the fact that Russia has only relatively recently began to properly open up to visitors only adds to all of this.
The phrase commonly heard in the final stages of the build-up to a World Cup, that all eyes will be on the hosts, will carry multiple meanings this time.
There really hasn’t been a World Cup like this.
Even Argentina 1978, the tournament that was most explicitly and disgracefully used for the nefarious purposes of a political regime, didn’t have the multiple angles of this; the various tangents and complicated questions of this. That World Cup 40 years ago was more about the country’s internal strife and the brutal junta, even if it obviously bled outwards – in some cases, literally. Its overtness still didn’t quite have this competition’s more globally overarching debates.
Russia’s own internal issues of course only intensify the politicisation of this one.
There are the crucial ethical questions about racism, homophobia, LGBT rights and human rights within the country, the economic downslide as well as regional politics that have led to internationally criticised military action. Away from the stadiums, even the way fans will be handled and the country generally responds will add to the intrigue. Much attention will be paid to the “atmosphere”.
One irony is that it has been reported in the Financial Times that Russia’s internal political and economic issues have led to a certain ennui about the tournament, a sense of “let’s just get this over with”.
In that sense, it no longer quite feels like there is the same fervour for the great international arrival party that was initially intended in 2010, and that Qatar so greatly desires for the 2022 World Cup that was so controversially awarded as part of it, and that only further adds to the politicisation of this event.
The alpha-male in Putin is still said to see this World Cup as an opportunity to promote a fitter way of life in the country, to get the next generation physically active.
However the tournament is actually viewed, it makes an utter mockery of the platitudes that so many involved will spout at times such as this: that it’s not the moment to discuss politics, that politics and sport should just never mix.
That is something instantly rendered inane the moment a politician gets involved in a tournament bid, the first time public funds are involved.
It’s just that, by the summer of 2018, sport and politics – or, at the very least, football and politics – will have never quite mixed like this – on a scale like this.
There is no global event like the World Cup, and there has never been a World Cup like Russia 2018.
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