Amos Murphy – 18/05/2018
In an alternate reality English football fans are less than a month away from a hosting the greatest show on earth – fate however was tempted in the opposite direction. Despite being a nation drowning in political and social controversy, it was Russia who were chosen to host the to host the twenty-first edition of the FIFA world cup.
It is over ten years since the Football Association launched their horrific and flawed bid to be world cup hosts – eliminated at the first round of voting, after receiving a mere two FIFA delegate votes, any hopes of returning the World Cup to the ‘homeland of football’, as described by FIFA president at the time Sepp Blatter, were doomed from the start. Instead it would be heading to Russia; a nation shadowed by its problems surrounding homosexuality, democracy and most frighteningly of all, football hooliganism.
The official line coming from the Russian bid was one of strength, pleading to the international footballing body to let Russia demonstrate its’ ability to showcase an international event of this stature and demonstrating how far the nation had come since the days of the troubled Soviet Union. This is the image personified by incumbent Russian president, Vladimir Putin. In the eyes of his citizens, he exhibits perfectly what it is like to be a modern-day Russian, ridding the stereotype of the ‘lazy, vodka-drinking oaf’ which was pinned on a lot of Russians throughout the last one hundred years. Despite his half-naked horse riding, megalomaniac persona in the rest of Europe, Putin is widely adored by the majority of Russians. Hosting such a tournament, which would bring in millions of pounds in corporate sponsorships, was a complete contradiction to the socialist principles Russia has modelled itself on over the last century.
You do not have to dig deep before you start to see the cracks appearing from underneath the artificial façade presented by Putin’s Russia. Eyebrows were initially raised when reports emerged that Russia had asked Spain to withdraw their bid to host the 2018 World Cup, in return for referee bribes at the 2010 tournament. Further questions were asked when a ‘vote buying’ scandal hung over the bidding process, with Lord Triesman, ex FA chairman, telling a House of Commons select committee, that he had been asked to do various things in return for votes from FIFA delegates. Knighthoods and bribes among the requests from those in the delegation, with the man at the epicentre of this scandal, none other than Jack Warner, ex FIFA vice-president.
Whilst a lot may have changed at FIFA since the 2015 corruption extermination, the decision was made to keep the host nations for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and the even more controversial 2022 tournament in Qatar. And with a second Cold War seemingly brewing between Russia and the West, the tournament, which is meant to be a festival of football, could not have come at a worse time.
When the blame was pinned on Russia after an ex-Russian spy was poisoned by a nerve agent on British soil in March, many senior members of the UK government called for the English national team to boycott the upcoming World Cup. Whilst this may have appeared to be a political smash and grab from a weak and undermined Conservative administration, tensions between the two nations have rarely, if not ever been higher. This escalated even further when a co-ordinated missile attack was fired into Syria, after the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian backed Assad regime. Whilst it is unlikely that there will be any threat to the heavily guarded England national team, the real concern will be the protection of the travelling fans, and after the ugly scenes which marred the opening fixture of England and Russia’s Euro 2016 campaign, it is probable that similar events could occur this summer.
Those scenes of violence in Marseille highlighted a surprising growing problem within Russian football; a BBC documentary revealed that Russian footballing culture modelled itself on that of the English fans in the 1980s and 90s. They had seen English football fans travel the continent, turning up to various European cities in their droves, and leaving them trashed and devastated, all in the name of supporting their football team. This was the lifestyle that the disenfranchised Russian football fan wanted. They craved that sense of belonging and tribal feeling. So, that is why when the two nations were paired against each other in 2016, it presented the Russian fans with an opportunity to showcase their superiority against the exact people they had longed to emulate.
The pinnacle of this altercation came when the Russian Sports Minister, Igor Lebedev, a figure who was a central part of the 2018 World Cup organising team, congratulated the Russian hooligans for their behaviour during the Euro 2016 tournament in France, leaving the England fans who wish to travel to this summer’s World Cup in an incredibly precarious and unsafe position.
With political tensions at an astronomical height, and direct threats made towards the England faithful by groups of Russian hooligans, more and more travelling fans are themselves choosing to boycott the tournament, exactly the case for England fan Gary Firth. Mr. Firth was planning on heading to Kalingrad from Manchester for the potentially crucial Group G tie between the three lions and Belgium. Having attended the 2016 European Championships, Russia would be one step too far for this long time England fan, stating that current political tensions between the two nations meant it would be “impossible to enjoy the trip without worrying that the situation would escalate”. Later saying that “it was just too much of a risk” in reaction to the foreign secretary’s comments which compared Russian president, Putin to Hitler, and the 2018 World Cup the equivalent to the Nazi Party leader’s 1936 Olympic Games.
It was just too much of a risk”
It is clear for all to see; Russia is not a fit or legitimate host for the second biggest sporting even on the planet. An opinion further emphasised when the Russian Football Association were fined £22,000 for racist chants in a friendly against France in late March. Whilst the sum of money charged by FIFA is a pitiful amount in comparison to the £13,000 the English FA were fined for allowing their player to wear poppies on their shirts, it begs the question, how can the international governing body of football, which champions a message of ‘fair play’ and equality, be content with allowing a country which has a track record of institutionalised racism to host the World Cup?
Unlike the hooliganism problem which came as a shock to many during the Euros, domestic Russian football clubs have long had a reputation for racist behaviour from their fans. On numerous occasions UEFA have issued fines to the biggest teams in Russia because of racist chants, even going as far as banning the CSKA Moscow fans for their 2014 Champions League campaign. Even more startling when you consider that over a third of the teams involved in this summer’s tournament consist of players that come from mainly black or ethnic minority backgrounds – it would be sheer embarrassment for FIFA should their showpiece tournament go ahead, in this day and age with, a chorus of monkey chants and other racist chants alike.
Leading up to the last European Championships in France the biggest concern was the threat of terrorism, in the run up to this World Cup there are a plethora of major problems posing as a danger to organisers, fans and even players. The last time Russia hosted a major sporting event, the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, it was shadowed by the allegations of a state sponsored doping campaign. It later saw the International Olympic Committee ban Russian athletes competing in the next two Olympic competitions.
Organisers have reassured travelling fans that this summer’s World Cup that they will go ahead problem free, just like the Confederation’s Cup did last year. However, the pressure placed upon the authorities will be over treble that of last year’s dress rehearsal tournament come June, add the problems facing one of the world’s most politically unstable nations, and we could be on the verge of one of the most troubled and controversial World Cups in recent memories – one reminiscent of the infamous 1978 tournament.
On the pitch Russia 2018 is bound to be a success; a fixture in every football fan’s calendar, the World Cup is one of the greatest shows on earth. Players, organisers and fans alike can only hope and pray that the events between June 14th – July 15th go ahead without any notable hiccups, but even if Russia 2018 ends up being a racism, hooliganism and controversy free tournament, football fans will still have to contend with the inadequacies of video assistant refereeing, something certain to send most towards a crippling state of insanity.