To Russia. With Love?
The World Cup arrives at an interesting moment for the host nation, the latest set of headlines to follow in the news stream of Ukraine, election-hacking, Syria and Skripal. Is the tournament another part of Putin’s Machiavellian master plan? Or do Russia
The host of the 2018 World Cup wants to project an image. But Russia is a football country, too.
“Iam Maria from RT. We would love to invite you for a live interview.”
It was the day before the final of the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup when Maria’s unexpected text message arrived. RT, formerly Russia Today, is an infamous English-language Russian satellite television channel, variously described as the Kremlin’s “propaganda channel” and a “mouthpiece” for President Vladimir Putin. What interest did they have in interviewing an Australian sports journalist?
Plenty, it seemed. As I later discovered, my reporting from the tournament had been on
RT’s radar after I published a feature about the positive experiences of Socceroos fans. My story had been referenced on RT’s website, boasting that “Australian fans visiting Russia for the 2017 Confederations Cup have been impressed by the hospitality and efficient organisation that has greeted them”. Now they wanted me to sing Russia’s praises on live television.
This experience was the starkest example of a recurring theme during last year’s World Cup warm-up event. Russians – from television producers to cafe staff to Uber drivers – were all anxious to hear what foreigners thought of their country and the job they were doing as hosts. At countless Confederations Cup press conferences, a local journalist would ask the coach or players for their impressions of Russia. Then-Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou grew tired of playing along at one point and snapped: “I didn’t come here to sight-see.” Russia has an image problem – and Russians know it.
The World Cup, then, is an exercise in brand improvement. No expense is being spared in preparing the 11 host cities for an influx of international visitors: English-language signage is being installed and thousands of red-shirted volunteers are being trained to assist bewildered foreigners. This determination to present a positive picture to the world manifested last year when a visiting reporter, scammed of $1000 by a taxi driver, had the money returned to him and an offer of free travel after the police intervened. As one local told me: “What might
be a non-event at a tournament in France is a major international news story when it happens in Russia.” Anxiety about negative perceptions is high.
“Russia for some time now has had a priority of remaking its image worldwide,” says Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch and who formerly lived in Moscow. Her organisation has been closely monitoring the lead-up to the World Cup, including numerous labour-rights abuses on stadium construction. “One part of that strategy is hosting big mega-sporting events: the Sochi Olympics and now the World Cup. To show off Russia, to say that Russia is back – this is the new Russia. It is part of its soft-power projection.”
It was the English who first took football to Russia. As Britain expanded its trading interests across the Russian Empire in the 1890s, immigrant workers proselytised the round-ball game to locals. Englishmen were well-represented in the first official match in Russia, in Saint Petersburg in March 1898. The sport took hold and before long, a Russian newspaper was chastising the English opponents of a Russian trade union team. “The British toilers have had no chance to learn this game,” the paper reported after a thumping victory. “We must teach them.”
The First World War and subsequent Russian Revolution complicated the spread of football. While leaders of the new Soviet Union appreciated the physical benefits of sport for the masses, they were wary of its capitalist undertones. The Bolsheviks even boycotted early Olympics on the grounds that they “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Aside from a handful of friendlies, the Soviets would not play a recognised international until 1952.
This isolation did not prevent domestic football from flourishing, and the Soviet Top League was established in 1936 for the USSR’s major clubs to play each other. But politics was never far from the surface, and the rivalry between Dynamo Moscow, the team of the secret police, and Spartak Moscow, the workers’ team, became legendary. Spartak founder Nikolai Starostin was sent to a gulag for ten years due to a football-related grudge held by honorary Dynamo president – and Stalin henchman – Lavrentiy Beria.
Starostin eventually returned to build Spartak into Russia’s most successful club, and a statue honouring him and his three brothers, all of whom played for Spartak, now sits pitch-side at Otkrytiye Arena, which will host five matches at this World Cup. Dynamo, meanwhile, has not won a league title since the 1970s; its fans bemoan the “Beria curse”.
The Soviet national team played its first international tournament at the Helsinki Olympics, and claimed its first major triumph four years later at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. It took them 28 days to return home – 20 by boat to Vladivostok and then eight by train to Moscow – so it was fortunate the team had a gold medal to celebrate. The USSR made its World Cup debut two years later, progressing to the knockout round, before unexpectedly winning the inaugural European Championships in 1960. Coached by Gavriil Kachalin, this team was widely hailed as the pinnacle of Soviet football.
More success came over the following decade, including fourth at the 1966 World Cup and second at the 1972 Euros, before the Soviet team experienced a bleak period. The USSR was disqualified from the 1974 World Cup for refusing to play Chile – the socialist Chilean government had been overthrown in an Americanbacked coup the year before – and failed
RUSSIA FOR SOME TIME NOW HAS HAD A PRIORITY OF REMAKING ITS IMAGE WORLDWIDE … ONE PART OF THAT STRATEGY IS HOSTING BIG MEGA SPORTING EVENTS. IT IS PART OF ITS SOFT POWER PROJECTION.
to qualify for three consecutive European Championships. While legendary manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi led the Soviet Union to second at the 1988 Euros, the team was dispersed as the USSR disintegrated between 1990 and 1991.
Throughout the Soviet era, football maintained an important social function. “People seemed to separate it from all that was going on around them,” Spartak founder Starostin wrote in his book. “It was like the utterly unreasoned worship by sinners desperate to seek oblivion in their blind appeal to divinity.”
Within the rigidity of a communist state, football offered a universally available outlet for freedom and choice. As American academic Robert Edelman explained in his history of sport in Russia, the one thing authorities couldn’t dictate was fan loyalty: “Football was one field of human activity in which a purportedly powerful Soviet state exercised little control.”
The Olympic Park in Sochi is a surreal place. A garish purple rollercoaster, castle-themed turreted hotel and the sleek Fisht Stadium are all glaring evidence of the roubles spent by the Russian government on construction ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics. With the jagged peaks of the Caucasus in the background and the calm Black Sea in the foreground, this idyllic setting takes on an eerie ghost-town edge when – as for most of the year – the Olympic Park sits unused.
Fisht Stadium will host six matches, including a quarter-final during the World Cup, and is a visible reminder that the 2018 tournament is not Moscow’s first attempt at using sport for political ends. Russia reportedly sunk more than $60 billion into the Winter Olympics. But the Games were widely criticised internationally, from media tweets about unfinished bathrooms to concerns about the staggering amount of corruption involved. Russia’s annexation of Crimea a month later swiftly overshadowed any remaining glow from the public relations halo of Sochi 2014.
Controversies are again threatening to provide an uneasy backdrop to Russia’s main event in June. Putin was recently re-elected for his fourth presidential term, which will see him become the longest leader in the Kremlin since Stalin. Freedom House describes Russia’s political system as “authoritarian”, with the ruling party able to “manipulate elections and inhibit genuine opposition”. The only legitimate rival candidate to Putin, Alexei Navalny, was jailed for a month in 2017 and prohibited from contesting this year’s presidential election. In May, Navalny was one of 1600 anti-Putin protesters detained across the country, and further protests may occur during the World Cup.
The spectre of racism, homophobia and hooliganism also looms large. In April, FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against the Russian football association after chants of “monkey” were directed at several French players during a friendly; this was not an isolated incident. In 2013, Russia introduced a law criminalising “homosexual propaganda”, which was blasted by the European Court of Human Rights for encouraging homophobia. Travelling LGBTQI fans have been warned against public displays of affection by FARE, an advocacy group. The threat of crowd troubles – fuelled by what English newspaper The Guardian describes as “neo-Nazi football hooligans” – has contributed to lower-than-expected international ticket sales, particularly among English fans following the violence between them and Russian supporters at the 2016 European Championships.
Elsewhere, the Egyptian FA’s unexpected decision to base their team in Grozny, capital of Chechnya, has provoked international ire. A region that fought two bloody wars with Russia in the 1990s and today enjoys de facto autonomy, Chechnya has had an abysmal human rights record under ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. When Egypt’s choice of host city was announced, FIFA faced immediate calls to change the location, but has so far refused to intervene.
“Chechnya is the most repressive part
of Russia,” says Human Rights Watch’s Denber. “Kadyrov can be counted on to use the fact that he is hosting the Egyptian national team to burnish his image. This is an opportunity for him to distract from the horrid information coming out of Chechnya about torture, the squashing of dissent, rounding up of gay people, public humiliations. Now that Chechnya is hosting the Egyptian national team, it is a way of gaining legitimacy.”
Qatar’s use of migrant labour on construction projects for the 2022 World Cup, which the New York Times equated to “indentured servitude”, has attracted plenty of attention. But Russia has been accused of using what amounts to slave labour from North Korea on Saint Petersburg’s World Cup stadium. At least 17 workers are known to have died in Russia on projects relating to the tournament, and Human Rights Watch has alleged that workers at one site were required to work outdoors in minus-30 degrees with insufficient breaks. Even FIFA’s own Human Rights Advisory Board identified shortcomings in the global governing body’s efforts to ensure satisfactory labour standards at the 2018 World Cup.
Concerns about rampant corruption on tournament projects have arisen regularly, while the cost of the World Cup – estimated around $16 billion – has become an obvious burden on the stagnant Russian economy. Yet despite Russia’s fiscal woes, which included a recession in 2015 and 2016, St Petersburg students Anastasia and Andrey laughed off the exorbitant price for hosting 64 football matches ($250 million each). “If not for the tournament, the money would just be spent on something else,” said the cheerful couple. “Better to put it to good use!”
“In the summer of 2018,” writes former Manchester United and Soviet star Andrei Kanchelskis in his recent autobiography, “Russia will once more feel like the centre of the world.” This, of course, is exactly why Putin’s Russia wanted to host what is arguably the biggest sporting event on the planet. While the local organising committee will roll out the red carpet for visiting fans and ensure no stone is left unturned in delivering a successful tournament, there is one variable even the Kremlin cannot control: the home team’s performance on the pitch.
Fans long for the glory days of Lev Yashin’s 1960s team, Kanchelskis and company in the 1990s or even the European Championships semi-finalists of 2008. Instead, the current Russian national team sits 66th on the FIFA rankings, the second lowest of all World Cup participants (only Saudi Arabia fares worse). Russia managed just one win at the Confederations Cup – against New Zealand – with Sbornaya unceremoniously exiting from the group stage. Drawn against the Saudis, Egypt and Uruguay, Russia will be fortunate to make it to the round of 16 this time around.
Eliot Rothwell, a Moscow-based journalist who has spent recent months travelling to each World Cup host city for ESPN, says Russians aren’t expecting too much from their team. “Recent friendlies have seen poor performances, the main centre-back pairing is injured and the veteran back-up pairing don’t want to
play for fear that their reputations will be tarnished by appearing for this absolutely terrible team on home soil,” he says. “It is not looking too promising.”
For visiting fans, this World Cup raises difficult moral issues. Is it okay to attend and enjoy a tournament in a country wracked by human rights abuse, where democracy is a facade and the event is being staged for pointed political purposes? “Putin is going to use it in the way Hitler used the 1936 Olympics,” British politician Ian Austin quipped in March. Such concerns are not going away – the 2022 World Cup will again prompt ethical introspection. While FIFA has adopted a human rights policy and pledged to strengthen its focus on these issues, such platitudes juxtapose awkwardly with tournaments in Russia and Qatar.
There is no easy answer. “Ultimately, I just want to watch the football,” one Australian fan told me at the Confederations Cup. Should it be the responsibility of supporters to act as the world game’s moral compass? With FIFA seemingly abdicating its responsibility, if not us, who?
At the risk of understatement, the 2018 World Cup will be an interesting tournament. Political intrigue will swirl, “only in Russia …” tweets will go viral and mishaps are inevitable. But as experienced visitors to Russia would understand, the travelling fans will probably enjoy their time in one of the most intriguing countries on Earth. As one veteran Moscow-based foreign correspondent dryly observed: “If you ignore all the corruption and human rights stuff, I am sure Russia will pull off a pretty great tournament.”
IS IT OKAY TO ENJOY A TOURNAMENT IN A COUNTRY WRACKED BY HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE, WHERE DEMOCRACY IS A FAÇADE AND THE EVENT IS BEING STAGED FOR POINTED POLITICAL PURPOSES? … WHILE FIFA HAS ADOPTED A HUMAN RIGHTS POLICY AND PLEDGED TO STRENGTHEN ITS FOCUS ON THESE ISSUES, SUCH PLATITUDES JUXTAPOSE AWKWARDLY WITH TOURNAMENTS IN RUSSIA AND QATAR.
Fun-loving Aussies are very welcome. Russian President Vladimir Putin was eager to get his hands on the FIFA World Cup Trophy, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Moscow. The very Russian-looking official poster for the 2018 World Cup.
Construction workers enjoy a game outside the Samara Arena. The main issue for Russian officials is that the Russian team, well ... isn't very good.