On 14 June, the World Cup started in Russia. The feeble protests from the concerned part of the Western European and North American community have been in vain. Softened up by Gazprom dollars, Pele, Maradona and countless other past and present stars are more than happy to have photos taken with Putin, while Lionel Messi, one of the two best players of modern times, has appeared in promotional videos for the tournament.
They do not care. They do not care about the fact that mindful people draw clear parallels between the 2018 Russian World Cup and the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Those Games were supposed to demonstrate "the greatness of the power and spirit of the great Aryan man”. The current tournament, due to the fact that the Russian football team is patently useless, is intended to underline the international power of Putin's empire.
After the world swallowed the annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Putin, after holding the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, went on to audaciously seize the Crimea from Ukraine and has now been waging war in the Donbas for over four years. Flight MH17 shot down near Donetsk and the terrible footage from Aleppo in Syria, showing the bombing of peaceful cities and villages, did not make an impression on European humanists and selective human rights activists either. A country of 18 million prior to the hostilities has been turned to ruins. Nevertheless, this is not called genocide any more.
They live by their own day-to-day realities. In the 1980s, the reaction to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was the boycott of the Moscow Olympics by representatives of 65 countries, including the United States, Canada, Turkey, Korea, Japan, Malaysia and the Federal Republic of Germany. Not even "friendly" China came to Russia. That was the beginning of the global economic and political pressure that accelerated the collapse of the USSR.
In the run-up to the upcoming World Cup, a boycott was only seriously spoken about once. And not even in the context of Ukraine or Syria (not to mention Georgia). The poisoning of Russian spy Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England was almost a turning point. Failing to receive an adequate explanation from the Kremlin, British Prime Minister Teresa May sent 23 Russian diplomats out of the United Kingdom. This is one of the largest such expulsions since the Cold War.
In addition, the British Government considered the possibility of seizing some Russian assets and closing certain bilateral relations. One of the next options looked at for sanctions was a boycott of the World Cup. Initially, this referred to a snub by diplomats and then the possibility of the English national team withdrawing was mentioned. Labour Party MP Stephen Kinnock proposed taking the World Cup away from Russia completely and holding it in 2019 in another country.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who compared Putin to Hitler, stated that Britain could reconsider its participation in the tournament if the role of the Kremlin in the Skripal poisoning was confirmed. This later happened, but no one returned to the boycott idea. Not least because the British rhetoric was not supported by any of the other 30 participating countries. Perhaps, the picture would look different if the US national team had qualified for the World Cup. However, the Americans were dramatically pipped by Panama and did not make it to Russia. Therefore, they could not be the initiators of a boycott by definition.
In the end, all protests will be limited to the diplomatic level. The Russian tournament will be ignored by officials from the UK, Sweden, Iceland, Japan, Poland and Denmark. Interestingly, there are no representatives of Arab countries in this list, which ostensibly should have supported Syria. In addition, FIFA prohibited Russian artists who have disgraced themselves with performances in the occupied Donbas from being involved in official events.
But it is unlikely that their absence will be noticed by anyone. It is noteworthy that no notable representatives of the football elite are planning to boycott the world championship. The mouthpiece of this wide community was the once famous English football player and now TV presenter Gary Linker. "Who are we to start getting judgemental on who should have the World Cup?" the annoyed sportsman said in an interview. "We all know how corrupt our country is at times. Perhaps we don’t like some things that Putin has done, but we’ll be there, we’ll be their guests." It should be mentioned that Lineker's official fee alone just for presenting the World Cup draw ceremony was €22,000.
Flower in the Manure
No expense was spared on preparations for the World Cup by Putin and his cronies – almost $8 million was spent. This amount is an all-time record for a football world championship. It was the same with the $51 billion that was spent 4 years ago on the Sochi Olympics, which was four times more than the Koreans shelled out for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.
In theory, for such money, all of the infrastructure should be immaculate. However, the experience of Sochi shows that when it comes to the details, the Russians remain true to themselves. Construction materials remained scattered around the Olympic Village and the roads were covered in mud. Johnny Quinn, an American bobsledder, became a social media darling with a photo of a smashed door. The cheap lock in the hotel bathroom would not open, so the athlete had no choice but to break though the chipboard door.
Of course, football players are not bobsledders or ice skaters, so they will be lodged in five-star apartments with all mod cons. However, a lot more fans will come to Russia over the month to watch football matches than attended the Sochi Olympics. They are mostly unpretentious people who want to stay abroad for as long as possible while spending as little as possible. They will certainly become familiar with the authentic charms of Saransk, Yekaterinburg, Rostov and Mordovia.
Six years ago when Ukraine hosted Euro 2012, foreigners talked about us as a hospitable and very cheap country. Beer priced at €1 flowed in streams in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk. Indeed, the locals realised at the time that they were selling themselves short. They partly made up for lost time this year, setting astronomical prices for hotels, food and alcohol (in the centre of the capital) for the days around the Champions League final. This forced not very wealthy foreign fans to look for housing on the outskirts of Kyiv, putting them in the shoes of Ukrainian fans who visit Spain and England.
Indeed, foreign guests at the Russian tournament can expect the same treatment. The only difference is that we had one match at the end of May, while national team supporters will have to stay on Russian territory for two weeks if they want to see even all the matches in the group phase. This scares away many European football fans. Although for some reason, the British press does not talk about the Russians in the same way it does the Ukrainians, not calling the fans there "the most bloodthirsty Nazis in Europe" as they recently dubbed the Dynamo Kyiv ultras. However, the fact is that fans make up a tight-knit community and they know where and from whom they should expect trouble without additional recommendations from the media. The English know that compared to Russian skinheads, the Ukrainian "thugs" look like heavenly angels, so they will have a long hard think before going to see their team play in Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad. Especially considering that the Marseilles fight at Euro 2016 is still fresh in the memory.
Undoubtedly, most ultra movements in Russia are controlled by the FSB. However, there is no guarantee that there will not be any "controlled lack of control" again, like in the port of Marseilles.
Big Money Instead of Sport
One way or another, Russia will do everything in its power to impress the average foreigner with the scale of the tournament. First and foremost is use of the media. It is no accident that the Western press reported on the total racism in our country before the European Championships and Champions League final in Ukraine, but have not said a single word about similar phenomena in our neighbouring country prior to the Russian World Cup. Even considering that incidents of racist abuse occur regularly at Russian stadiums, especially during international matches. Only for some reason, FIFA and UEFA remain completely loyal to them, in contrast to their reaction to red and black flags in Ukrainian stadiums. It is also telling how quickly The Ukrainian Week art director Andriy Yermolenko, who devoted a series of hard-hitting drawings to the coming World Cup, was silenced on Facebook. Initially, his posters drew the anger of Russian propaganda media outlets and then Andriy was banned from the social network.
Russia is worried about its image ahead of the World Cup opening ceremony. Perhaps, more than it is worried about its team's performance. Of course, a strong squad would not hurt Putin's level of satisfaction. It would strengthen the wave of propaganda heralding the greatness of Mother Russia. However, it is in fact doubtful whether the team led by Stanislav Cherchesov will even make it out of the obviously fabricated group in which Russia's rivals are Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
During the Sochi Olympics, Russia went into a state of "victory fever" thanks to falsified doping test results, which ultimately made it a laughing stock in the eyes of fans. Following these scandals, the sporting world looks at the Russians with contempt, knowing that the country only avoids genuine sanctions thanks to its petrodollars.
According to testimony from former head of the Moscow Anti-Doping Centre Grigory Rodchenkov, who fled Russia and agreed to act as a whistle-blower for the World Anti-Doping Agency, 33 top Russian footballers, among others, were suspected of using banned drugs. However, due to a lack of sufficient evidence, FIFA did not treat these accusations seriously and continued to dig in its heels, leaving Russia untouched. However, there is no doubt that even with doping the Russian team is not capable of doing anything significant. Football is a well-rounded sport. It is not running or swimming, where endurance or raw physical strength can play a decisive role. Doping cannot lead to an increase in skill.
However, the times when status in international sport was acquired through victories alone have passed. Their absence can be compensated by big money, which representatives of Russia do very successfully. And the heads of world football governing bodies are delighted to meet them halfway. Especially the previous ones. Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who was suspended from his position due to corruption charges, achieved notoriety for allowing World Cup host countries to be chosen 12 years in advance for no obvious reason. That year, the right to host the 2018 World Cup was awarded to Russia and the 2022 tournament was given to the completely non-footballing nation of Qatar. Italian Gianni Infantino, who replaced the ousted Blatter, promised an investigation, but, of course, it did not produce any results.
It is as if the world of sports, especially football, has fenced itself off from everything else and continues to live on its own planet. At a time when political elites are trying to dampen aggressive Russian appetites with economic levers of influence, sport, on the contrary, tries to take advantage of these resources in every possible way. Not worrying about the reputational consequences.
To the Football or to Jail?
Ukraine, taking only third place in its qualifying group, did not qualify for the Russian championship. Rumours even spread in Russia that our team lost their final match to the Croats on purpose to avoid unnecessary trouble. Whether this was the case is neither here nor there. It is important that even without the participation of the Ukrainian team, passions around the World Cup in a hostile country continue to rage. The two most controversial issues are visits by Ukrainian fans to the aggressor country and whether it is appropriate to broadcast matches from Russia.
According to official figures, about five thousand Ukrainians have purchased tickets for World Cup 2018 matches. The places of residence of these "lucky ones" have not been reported. It is obvious that some live in the occupied territories, but use their Ukrainian passport when purchasing tickets, because papers claiming to be documents of various "People's Republics" are not legitimate. However, judging by the available information, there are a lot of people interested in attending matches that live in cities controlled by our country, especially Kyiv and Kharkiv.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine has posted official warnings on its website about the dangers that may be encountered by these so-called Ukrainians. However, this did not, unfortunately, serve as a deterrent. It is unfortunate not because we pity the people who are going to watch football in the heart of the aggressor country during the fifth year of war, but because in the future those for whom "sport and politics don't mix" risk ending up in Russian prison by chance (for example, because of an old photo on social media) and will have to be exchanged for those who came to Ukraine not for sport, but for war. However, these people think in somewhat different categories.
The attitude of Ukrainian ultras towards the World Cup is Russia is clearly hostile. Even if the Ukrainian national team were there, a trip to a hostile territory would still be out of the question due to the fact that before the Revolution of Dignity so-called Ukrainian law enforcement officers had databases of fans that fell into the hands of the enemy with the onset of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation. In the end, even if these lists did not exist, supporters perceive anything linked to Russia as hostile and condemn those who are going to the World Cup. There is good reason why ticket holders for the tournament try to keep a low profile. Journalists who found such people were only able to publish their material under the condition that they would not use real names. The interviewees are afraid of condemnation even from their own relatives.
A Propaganda Tool for Inter TV
The situation with TV broadcasts is shrouded in mystery. Public channel UA:First, which owns the rights due to the fact that they were acquired when Yanukovych was at the helm, has clearly stated that matches will not be broadcast from Russia. The only football channel in our country, unsurprisingly named Football and owned by Rinat Akhmetov, also refused to buy out the rights.
"The World Cup in Russia is big-league politics," says Volodymyr Kramar, a journalist at Football. "The tournament itself is regarded as an attempt to demonstrate the greatness of the Kremlin and Russia. Personally, I do not want to see it. Some might say that the Russians will play three matches in the group and maybe get through to the knockout phase, where they will play at most one game. Why should a spectator not watch the rest of the matches and see the best teams in the world? Bear in mind that any broadcast is not just the 90 minutes of the match that only shows the players and coaches. It also includes promotional material, advertising, title sequences and "important" shots of "important" people. The tournament is always surrounded by a huge amount of accompanying information, and in the case of the Russians, propaganda. All the Kremlin bigwigs will surely turn up for the opening match and final. Their smug mugs will be shown constantly around the world. And honestly, I have a question: why should a Ukrainian audience watch them?"
However, Ukrainian media outlets were not unanimous in this regard. What is foreign to a reasonable Ukrainian is the most acceptable thing in the world for a channel owned by Firtash and Liovochkin. In the end, it is not even important that the TV channel Inter has the right to broadcast the World Cup. It is important that the management of UA:First cooperated. Understanding who would get their hands into these broadcasts and in which spirit the information would be presented. In this case, it would probably be better for National Public Broadcasting Company chairman Zurab Alasania and his subordinates to take personal responsibility. It is unwise, to put it mildly, to let broadcasts of an event that will be watched by millions of Ukrainians fall into the clutches of hostile forces. Especially during a war in which the presentation of information plays such a key role.
It is worth paying tribute to Ukrainian commentators. Since Inter does not have its own sports team, after buying the rights, the channel's management began to look for pundits to work live on air during games at the Russian World Cup. "I'd rather go to close down Inter than work there," Denys Bosyanok, one of the best commentators in Ukraine, remarked when hearing their proposal. Dmytro Dzhulai, who at one time refused to work on Akhmetov's TV channel and now commentates on the international Setanta Sport Eurasia, reacted to the call from Inter with ironic laughter. Current Kyiv TV journalist Ruslan Svirin also refused to cooperate with the channel where he initially made a name for himself.
Nevertheless, we know that nature abhors a vacuum. Even more so as there are too many unemployed sports journalists in Ukraine. Oleksandr Tynhayev, Yuriy Kyrychenko, Oleksandr Sukmanskiy and Inter employee Roman Kademin obviously do not care that their country is in the fifth year of a war and it is obviously not very ethical to indulge those who promote the propaganda of the aggressor country.
Another thing is that there may not be any broadcasts at all. A week before the start of the tournament, the parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech supported a draft resolution that prohibits the broadcasting of the 2018 World Cup from Russia. Among those who supported the decision was, notably, president of the Football Federation of Ukraine Andriy Pavelko. Although this was not such a surprise, because even previously the FFU refused to accredit Ukrainian journalists for the event. However, it is not yet clear whether this decision will actually lead to a ban.
Translated by Jonathan Reilly