Ics, foot­ball mix like never be­fore

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SUNBIZ -

the in­creas­ing hard­en­ing of Rus­sia’s stance to­wards the out­side world, and es­pe­cially the West, pro­vides an in­trigu­ing lin­ing to a World Cup that will oth­er­wise be de­fined by foot­balling ge­niuses and fer­vid col­lec­tives, by stun­ning feats of ath­leti­cism and out­stand­ing acts of de­vo­tion.

This, in many ways, is the para­dox of Rus­sia’s World Cup: that a tour­na­ment con­ceived as a congress of na­tions, a bridge be­tween worlds, a cel­e­bra­tion of com­mon­al­ity and open­ness, is tak­ing place in a coun­try that has done more than any other to burn those bridges, to ob­scure

di­vide, to drive those worlds ever fur­ther apart.

The con­se­quence of this is that Putin’s Rus­sia is no longer overly pre­oc­cu­pied with what the out­side world thinks of it, and is cer­tainly un­der no il­lu­sions that it can get West­ern sanc­tions lifted or thaw re­la­tions with

United States by suc­cess­fully host­ing a foot­ball tour­na­ment.

The World Cup will not have any sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on Rus­sia’s image,” An­drei Kolesnikov, a se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Moscow Cen­tre, said: “It is just too toxic.”

So as en­thralling and cap­ti­vat­ing as it will be, this World Cup isn’t be­ing hosted for our ben­e­fit. It’s largely for do­mes­tic con­sump­tion; un­de­terred by the ab­ject state of the na­tional side, which as most Rus­sians re­alised some time ago, hasn’t got the faintest chance of ac­tu­ally win­ning the com­pe­ti­tion.

This, by the way, is why com­par­isons with the 1936 Ber­lin Olympics are not just wide of the mark but rather lazy: the idea of a supreme ath­letic mas­ter race is rather harder to con­fect when you’re ranked No. 70 in the world and ex­pected to be fight­ing it out with Egypt to se­cure a place in the sec­ond round.

With no hope of a home tri­umph, then, the ob­jec­tives for the tour­na­ment have been sub­tly shifted.

I t ’ s b e c o me a b o u t c o mpet e n c e , pro­fes­sion­al­ism, in­fra­struc­ture, con­trol: the Putin regime prov­ing to its peo­ple that even in the face of sanc­tions, a stag­ger­ing econ­omy, fall­ing oil prices and the nasty for­eign me­dia, it can host one of these big events just as well as any of the West­ern pow­ers.

At an eco­nomic fo­rum last month, Putin was asked who would win the World Cup. “The or­gan­is­ers,” he replied, to laugh­ter and ap­plause.

In or­der to pull it off, Rus­sia has kept an un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally tight rein on a fi­nan­cial and bu­reau­cratic ap­pa­ra­tus more of­ten as­so­ci­ated with vast in­ef­fi­ciency, bro­ken prom­ises and a sort of mod­u­lated, ten­den­tious chaos.

Nine brand new sta­di­ums have been con­structed. There have been bud­get over­runs, the odd lo­cal row, the odd cut cor­ner, but noth­ing grotesquely out of keep­ing with the reg­u­lar build-up to a global mega-event.

Hooli­gan­ism, for all the grisly im­ages emerg­ing from Euro 2016 in France two years ago and the long his­tory of foot­ball vi­o­lence in the coun­try, is not pre­dicted to be a ma­jor threat. It’s proof, I sup­pose, that Rus­sia can do pretty much what­ever it wants to when it sets its mind to it.

For those vis­it­ing the coun­try from out­side, it can seem an in­tim­i­dat­ingly in­tractable place: not so much overtly hos­tile as deeply, men­ac­ingly, wil­fully be­wil­der­ing.

A place where words can mean what­ever you want them to mean, where a sur­real dou­ble­think reigns supreme, where an ob­scure and cryptic ab­sur­dism clings to ev­ery trans­ac­tion like an in­vis­i­ble film.

And so, will there be racism at the World Cup? Will there be vi­o­lence? Will there be op­pres­sion of gay fans and mi­nori­ties? Will there be trans­port chaos, price goug­ing and heavy-handed se­cu­rity? Of course there will. Of course there won’t. It all de­pends on where you look.

That’s the thing about some­thing as un­fath­omably large as the World Cup: glimpse at it for long enough, and you’ll see pretty much what­ever you want to.

The girl at the Rus­sian em­bassy who han­dled my visa ap­pli­ca­tion was the most joy­ous, chuck­ling, friendly, hos­pitable em­ployee of a for­eign govern­ment I’ve ever met.

Maybe they were un­der spe­cial or­ders to be po­lite to the World Cup jour­nal­ists. Maybe she was just, you know, nice. This is the thing about a Rus­sian World Cup: you can never quite be sure that what you’re be­ing shown is gen­uine or be­ing staged for your ben­e­fit, whether what you’re be­ing told is a state­ment of fact, or sim­ply a clev­erly am­bigu­ous for­mu­la­tion of words and fa­cial ex­pres­sions, a so­ci­ety of masks upon masks, where racism isn’t racism, where free elec­tions aren’t free elec­tions.

Re­mind you of any­thing at all? The ab­sur­dity, the lack of ac­count­abil­ity, the quasifeu­dal struc­ture, the cul­ture of ca­sual klep­toc­racy, the mal­leabil­ity of truth?

FIFA have al­ways been fas­tid­i­ously keen on peo­ple in­clud­ing their name when de­scrib­ing the tour­na­ment, but given the set­ting and the man­ner in which it was awarded, this may well be the first time it is ap­pro­pri­ate to do so.

This does feel, more than most, like the FIFA World Cup: the most FIFA-y, World Cup­pi­est FIFA World Cup ever. It’s some­how so fit­ting that a FIFA ethics com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­ga­tion cleared Rus­sia of all wrong­do­ing with re­la­tion to the 2018 bid, al­beit af­ter Rus­sia had swiftly and ex­pe­di­tiously de­stroyed all the bid com­put­ers.

None of this need nec­es­sar­ily make the tour­na­ment any less watch­able, the foot­ball any less en­thralling, the sense of oc­ca­sion any less elec­tric. It won’t make Cris­tiano Ronaldo’s stepovers any less im­pres­sive, Kevin de Bruyne’s through balls any less per­cep­tive.

One of the most stub­bornly tena­cious traits of sport­ing im­pro­pri­ety is that there’s al­ways the sport to spirit the spot­light away from the im­pro­pri­ety. It’s why the next month will be unashamedly deca­dent, up­roar­i­ous, di­vi­sive, en­tranc­ing, fun.

There comes a time when, for most ob­servers at least, the geopol­i­tics stops and the foot­ball starts. Rus­sia will host its World Cup, we will all watch it, and it will prob­a­bly be fine. Just try not to look too closely, or you’ll see some­thing you’re not sup­posed to. – The In­de­pen­dent

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