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

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY KIER AN PEN­DER

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


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.”


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. ƒ„… 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.

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