IS ANYONE WILLING TO RAIN ON PUTIN’S WORLD CUP PARADE?
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.
People watch as Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech on Thursday prior to the World Cup match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.