De Souza,

IS ANY­ONE WILL­ING TO RAIN ON PUTIN’S WORLD CUP PA­RADE?

National Post (Latest Edition) - - NEWS -

NAFTA may be dead, but the NAFTA World Cup will be com­ing in 2026. FIFA an­nounced Wednesday that Canada, Mex­ico and the United States will jointly host the event. The only other jointly hosted World Cup was be­tween his­toric en­e­mies Ja­pan and Korea in 2002, so per­haps FIFA knows some­thing about the fu­ture of North Amer­i­can re­la­tions that we don’t.

That’s all eight years off. Yes­ter­day, the 2018 World Cup be­gan, a solid month where my lack of in­ter­est in foot­ball — soc­cer, that is — puts me in the dis­tinct mi­nor­ity of global sports fans, who will be fol­low­ing the in­tense ex­cite­ment that only a 1-nil thriller can bring.

Per­mit me then to pass over the drama — or it is melo­drama, given the the­atrics for which in­ter­na­tional foot­ball is fa­mous? — on the pitch and con­sider the geopol­i­tics of the event.

The open­ing match was in Moscow and pit­ted the host, Rus­sia, against Saudi Ara­bia, which was suit­able. The next World Cup will be in Qatar, but it did not qual­ify for the tour­na­ment this time. Saudi Ara­bia though is a Western-friendly, oil-rich re­pres­sive regime, so Rus­si­aSaudi was an apt cur­tain­raiser on FIFA’s World Cup turn to­ward tyranny.

How will the world com­mu­nity deal with Rus­sia’s turn on the world stage? Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin will ex­ploit the World Cup for his im­pe­rial pre­ten­sions. Will the world per­mit that, or use the spot­light to chal­lenge Putin?

What Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will do one never knows, but the global spot­light of the World Cup will prove ir­re­sistible, so we can ex­pect a month of pres­i­den­tial com­men­tary on Putin, on Rus­sia, on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the Amer­i­can elec­tion, and on what­ever else one might learn about Rus­sia from watch­ing ca­ble news.

Trump’s com­ments on read­mit­ting Rus­sia to the G7 on the eve of the re­cent sum­mit in Charlevoix were widely con­demned for be­ing soft on Putin. Pre­scind­ing from his com­ments though, is the fact that the global com­mu­nity has more or less rec­on­ciled it­self to Putin’s in­va­sion of Ukraine and de facto pro­tec­torate in Syria. If Putin were to re­turn to the G7 it would be largely to gloat.

The 2014 Win­ter Olympics in Sochi should be re­mem­bered. Not for the ex­trav­a­gance of the Rus­sian spend­ing on the games — that hap­pens else­where — but how Putin man­aged them in the con­text of his am­bi­tion. Six months be­fore Sochi, Putin hu­mil­i­ated and out­ma­noeu­vred Barack Obama in Syria, so­lid­i­fy­ing his po­si­tion as a Mid­dle East power again. When stir­rings of free­dom in Ukraine be­gan later that same year, Putin was ready to pounce.

Yet he waited un­til af­ter Sochi, not wanting to have to deal with the un­pleas­ant in­ter­na­tional carp­ing about an in­va­sion while he was still hold­ing aloft the Olympic torch of broth­er­hood. No sooner was it ex­tin­guished and Rus­sian troops were on the march. They an­nexed Crimea, and their troops are still oc­cu­py­ing east­ern parts of Ukraine four years later.

In re­sponse, Canada was tougher than most, with Stephen Harper lead­ing the move to ex­pel Rus­sia from the G8. But time passed, the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea seemed ir­re­versible, the as­phyx­i­at­ing bear hug on Syria was ig­nored, and four years later the world is gath­ered in Rus­sia again for what truly is — with due re­spect to the Olympics — the grand­est mo­ment in global sports.

The World Cup will bring the usual bloated gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate and celebrity del­e­ga­tions of of­fi­cials from around the world. It’s a bit like Davos, with­out the pre­ten­tious talks and the ski­ing. So what will the great and the good and the glam­orous say when in Rus­sia, pro­tected for the mo­ment by world at­ten­tion?

Will for­eign govern­ments speak out against Rus­sian ag­gres­sion against its neighbours?

Will FIFA, which grandiosely boasts that Qatar 2022 will the first Arab World Cup, men­tion that Rus­sia’s cur­rent role in the Arab world is to fo­ment re­pres­sion and war?

Will the jour­nal­ists stage at least a sym­bolic act of sol­i­dar­ity with Rus­sian jour­nal­ists who meet the most ex­tra­or­di­nary ill­for­tune when they ask too many ques­tions — or any ques­tions at all — about the klep­to­cratic state run by Putin and his for­mer KGB col­leagues?

Will those who pro­mote sport as part of a healthy life­style men­tion that a failed po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic state can pro­duce dis­as­trous health out­comes? The af­ter­burn of com­mu­nism has done more to re­duce life ex­pectan­cies and health for Rus­sians than smok­ing. It would be hard to imag­ine the World Cup per­mit­ting a cig­a­rette spon­sor. But smok­ing would be health­ier for a Rus­sian man than liv­ing in Rus­sia.

When Vladimir Putin presents him­self as the pride of Holy Mother Rus­sia, will any­one point out that his vi­sion of Rus­sia rad­i­cally sub­jects the “holy” — the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church — to the po­lit­i­cal Rus­sia?

Will any­one, in short, be will­ing to rain on the pa­rade?

The World Cup comes to Rus­sia just a few weeks shy of the cen­te­nary of the end of the Great War. It has been a most cat­a­strophic hun­dred years for a na­tion of great his­tory and cul­ture. No amount of sports hype should mask that.

DMITRI LOVETSKY / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Peo­ple watch as Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin de­liv­ers a speech on Thursday prior to the World Cup match be­tween Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia.

Fr. ray­MonD Souza De

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