A World Cup drip­ping in blood

Why the world is not boy­cotting the Rus­sia-hosted cham­pi­onship

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Ivan Ver­byt­skiy

On 14 June, the World Cup will start in Rus­sia. The fee­ble protests from the con­cerned part of the Western Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can com­mu­nity have been in vain. Soft­ened up by Gazprom dol­lars, Pele, Maradona and count­less other past and present stars are more than happy to have pho­tos taken with Putin, while Lionel Messi, one of the two best play­ers of mod­ern times, has ap­peared in pro­mo­tional videos for the tour­na­ment.

They do not care. They do not care about the fact that mind­ful peo­ple draw clear parallels be­tween the 2018 Rus­sian World Cup and the Ber­lin Olympics in 1936. Those Games were sup­posed to demon­strate "the great­ness of the power and spirit of the great Aryan man”. The cur­rent tour­na­ment, due to the fact that the Rus­sian football team is patently use­less, is in­tended to un­der­line the in­ter­na­tional power of Putin's em­pire.

FAILED BOY­COTT

Af­ter the world swal­lowed the an­nex­a­tion of Abk­hazia and South Os­se­tia, Putin, af­ter hold­ing the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, went on to au­da­ciously seize the Crimea from Ukraine and has now been wag­ing war in the Don­bas for over four years. Flight MH17 shot down near Donetsk and the ter­ri­ble footage from Aleppo in Syria, show­ing the bomb­ing of peace­ful cities and vil­lages, did not make an im­pres­sion on Euro­pean hu­man­ists and selec­tive human rights ac­tivists ei­ther. A coun­try of 18 mil­lion prior to the hos­til­i­ties has been turned to ru­ins. Nev­er­the­less, this is not called geno­cide any more.

They live by their own day-to-day re­al­i­ties. In the 1980s, the re­ac­tion to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was the boy­cott of the Moscow Olympics by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of 65 coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, Canada, Tur­key, Korea, Ja­pan, Malaysia and the Fed­eral Re­pub­lic of Ger­many. Not even "friendly" China came to Rus­sia. That was the be­gin­ning of the global eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal pres­sure that ac­cel­er­ated the col­lapse of the USSR.

In the run-up to the up­com­ing World Cup, a boy­cott was only se­ri­ously spo­ken about once. And not even in the con­text of Ukraine or Syria (not to men­tion Ge­or­gia). The poi­son­ing of Rus­sian spy Skri­pal and his daugh­ter in Sal­is­bury, Eng­land was al­most a turn­ing point. Fail­ing to re­ceive an ad­e­quate ex­pla­na­tion from the Krem­lin, British Prime Min­is­ter Teresa May sent 23 Rus­sian diplo­mats out of the United King­dom. This is one of the largest such ex­pul­sions since the Cold War.

In ad­di­tion, the British Govern­ment con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity of seiz­ing some Rus­sian as­sets and clos­ing cer­tain bi­lat­eral re­la­tions. One of the next op­tions looked at for sanc­tions was a boy­cott of the World Cup. Ini­tially, this re­ferred to a snub by diplo­mats and then the pos­si­bil­ity of the English national team with­draw­ing was men­tioned. Labour Party MP Stephen Kin­nock pro­posed tak­ing the World Cup away from Rus­sia com­pletely and hold­ing it in 2019 in an­other coun­try.

British For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son, who com­pared Putin to Hitler, stated that Bri­tain could re­con­sider its par­tic­i­pa­tion in the tour­na­ment if the role of the Krem­lin in the Skri­pal poi­son­ing was con­firmed. This later hap­pened, but no one re­turned to the boy­cott idea. Not least be­cause the British rhetoric was not sup­ported by any of the other 30 par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries. Per­haps, the pic­ture would look dif­fer­ent if the US national team had qual­i­fied for the World Cup. How­ever, the Amer­i­cans were dra­mat­i­cally pipped by Panama and did not make it to Rus­sia. There­fore, they could not be the ini­tia­tors of a boy­cott by def­i­ni­tion.

In the end, all protests will be lim­ited to the diplo­matic level. The Rus­sian tour­na­ment will be ig­nored by of­fi­cials from the UK, Swe­den, Ice­land, Ja­pan, Poland and Den­mark. In­ter­est­ingly, there are no rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Arab coun­tries in this list, which os­ten­si­bly should have sup­ported Syria. In ad­di­tion, FIFA pro­hib­ited Rus­sian artists who have dis­graced them­selves with per­for­mances in the oc­cu­pied Don­bas from be­ing in­volved in of­fi­cial events.

But it is un­likely that their ab­sence will be no­ticed by any­one. It is note­wor­thy that no no­table rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the football elite are plan­ning to boy­cott the world cham­pi­onship. The mouth­piece of this wide com­mu­nity was the once fa­mous English football player and now TV pre­sen­ter Gary Linker. "Who are we to start get­ting judge­men­tal on who should have the World Cup?" the an­noyed sports­man said in an in­ter­view. "We all know how cor­rupt our coun­try is at times. Per­haps we don’t like some things that Putin has done, but we’ll be there, we’ll be their guests." It should be men­tioned that Lineker's of­fi­cial fee alone just for pre­sent­ing the World Cup draw cer­e­mony was €22,000.

FLOWER IN THE MA­NURE

No ex­pense was spared on prepa­ra­tions for the World Cup by Putin and his cronies – al­most $8 mil­lion was spent. This amount is an all-time record for a football world cham­pi­onship. It was the same with the $51 bil­lion that was spent 4 years ago on the Sochi Olympics, which was four times more than the Kore­ans shelled out for the 2018 Win­ter Games in Pyeongchang.

In the­ory, for such money, all of the in­fra­struc­ture should be im­mac­u­late. How­ever, the ex­pe­ri­ence of Sochi shows that when it comes to the de­tails, the Rus­sians re­main true to them­selves. Con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als re­mained scat­tered around the Olympic Vil­lage and the roads were cov­ered in mud. Johnny Quinn, an Amer­i­can bob­sled­der, be­came a so­cial me­dia dar­ling with a photo of a smashed door. The cheap lock in the ho­tel bath­room would not open, so the ath­lete had no choice but to break though the chip­board door.

No ex­pense was spared on prepa­ra­tions for the World Cup by Putin and his cronies – al­most $8 mil­lion was spent. This amount is an all-time record for a football world cham­pi­onship. It was the same with the $51 bil­lion that was spent 4 years ago on the Sochi Olympics

Of course, football play­ers are not bob­sled­ders or ice skaters, so they will be lodged in five-star apart­ments with all mod cons. How­ever, a lot more fans will come to Rus­sia over the month to watch football matches than at­tended the Sochi Olympics. They are mostly un­pre­ten­tious peo­ple who want to stay abroad for as long as pos­si­ble while spend­ing as lit­tle as pos­si­ble. They will cer­tainly be­come fa­mil­iar with the au­then­tic charms of Saransk, Yeka­ter­in­burg, Ros­tov and Mor­dovia.

Six years ago when Ukraine hosted Euro 2012, for­eign­ers talked about us as a hos­pitable and very cheap coun­try. Beer priced at €1 flowed in streams in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk. In­deed, the lo­cals re­alised at the time that they were sell­ing them­selves short. They partly made up for lost time this year, set­ting astro­nom­i­cal prices for ho­tels, food and al­co­hol (in the cen­tre of the cap­i­tal) for the days around the Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal. This forced not very wealthy for­eign fans to look for hous­ing on the out­skirts of Kyiv, putting them in the shoes of Ukrainian fans who visit Spain and Eng­land.

In­deed, for­eign guests at the Rus­sian tour­na­ment can ex­pect the same treat­ment. The only dif­fer­ence is that we had one match at the end of May, while national team sup­port­ers will have to stay on Rus­sian ter­ri­tory for two weeks if they want to see even all the matches in the group phase. This scares away many Euro­pean football fans. Although for some rea­son, the British press does not talk about the Rus­sians in the same way it does the Ukraini­ans, not call­ing the fans there "the most blood­thirsty Nazis in Europe" as they re­cently dubbed the Dy­namo Kyiv ul­tras. How­ever, the fact is that fans make up a tight-knit com­mu­nity and they know where and from whom they should ex­pect trou­ble with­out ad­di­tional rec­om­men­da­tions from the me­dia. The English know that com­pared to Rus­sian skin­heads, the Ukrainian "thugs" look like heav­enly an­gels, so they will have a long hard think be­fore go­ing to see their team play in Vol­gograd, Nizhny Nov­gorod and Kalin­ingrad. Espe­cially con­sid­er­ing that the Mar­seilles fight at Euro 2016 is still fresh in the mem­ory.

Un­doubt­edly, most ul­tra move­ments in Rus­sia are con­trolled by the FSB. How­ever, there is no guar­an­tee that there will not be any "con­trolled lack of con­trol" again, like in the port of Mar­seilles.

BIG MONEY IN­STEAD OF SPORT

One way or an­other, Rus­sia will do every­thing in its power to im­press the av­er­age for­eigner with the scale of the tour­na­ment. First and fore­most is use of the me­dia. It is no ac­ci­dent that the Western press re­ported on the to­tal racism in our coun­try be­fore the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships and Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal in Ukraine, but have not said a sin­gle word about sim­i­lar phe­nom­ena in our neigh­bour­ing coun­try prior to the Rus­sian World Cup. Even con­sid­er­ing that in­ci­dents of racist abuse oc­cur reg­u­larly at Rus­sian sta­di­ums, espe­cially dur­ing in­ter­na­tional matches. Only for some rea­son, FIFA and UEFA re­main com­pletely loyal to them, in con­trast to their re­ac­tion to red and black flags in Ukrainian sta­di­ums. It is also telling how quickly The Ukrainian Week art direc­tor An­driy Yer­molenko, who de­voted a se­ries of hard-hit­ting draw­ings to the com­ing World Cup, was si­lenced on Face­book. Ini­tially, his posters drew the anger of Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda me­dia out­lets and then An­driy was banned from the so­cial net­work.

Rus­sia is wor­ried about its im­age ahead of the World Cup open­ing cer­e­mony. Per­haps, more than it is wor­ried about its team's per­for­mance. Of course, a strong squad would not hurt Putin's level of sat­is­fac­tion. It would strengthen the wave of pro­pa­ganda herald­ing the great­ness of Mother Rus­sia. How­ever, it is in fact doubt­ful whether the team led by Stanislav Cherch­esov will even make it out of the ob­vi­ously fab­ri­cated group in which Rus­sia's ri­vals are Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Ara­bia.

Dur­ing the Sochi Olympics, Rus­sia went into a state of "vic­tory fever" thanks to fal­si­fied dop­ing test results, which ul­ti­mately made it a laugh­ing stock in the eyes of fans. Fol­low­ing th­ese scan­dals, the sport­ing world looks at the Rus­sians with con­tempt, know­ing that the coun­try only avoids gen­uine sanc­tions thanks to its petrodol­lars.

Ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony from for­mer head of the Moscow Anti-Dop­ing Cen­tre Grig­ory Rod­chenkov, who fled Rus­sia and agreed to act as a whis­tle-blower for the World Anti-Dop­ing Agency, 33 top Rus­sian foot­ballers, among oth­ers, were sus­pected of us­ing banned drugs. How­ever, due to a lack of suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence, FIFA did not treat th­ese ac­cu­sa­tions se­ri­ously and con­tin­ued to dig in its heels, leav­ing Rus­sia un­touched. How­ever, there is no doubt that even with dop­ing the Rus­sian team is not ca­pa­ble of do­ing any­thing sig­nif­i­cant. Football is a well-rounded sport. It is not run­ning or swim­ming, where en­durance or raw phys­i­cal strength can play a de­ci­sive role. Dop­ing can­not lead to an in­crease in skill.

How­ever, the times when sta­tus in in­ter­na­tional sport was ac­quired through vic­to­ries alone have passed. Their ab­sence can be com­pen­sated by big money, which rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Rus­sia do very suc­cess­fully. And the heads of world football gov­ern­ing bod­ies are de­lighted to meet them halfway. Espe­cially the pre­vi­ous ones. For­mer FIFA pres­i­dent Sepp Blat­ter, who was sus­pended from his po­si­tion due to cor­rup­tion charges, achieved no­to­ri­ety for al­low­ing World Cup host coun­tries to be cho­sen 12 years in ad­vance for no ob­vi­ous rea­son. That year, the right to host the 2018 World Cup was awarded to Rus­sia and the 2022 tour­na­ment was given to the com­pletely non-foot­balling na­tion of Qatar. Ital­ian Gi-

anni In­fantino, who re­placed the ousted Blat­ter, promised an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but, of course, it did not pro­duce any results.

It is as if the world of sports, espe­cially football, has fenced it­self off from every­thing else and con­tin­ues to live on its own planet. At a time when po­lit­i­cal elites are try­ing to dampen ag­gres­sive Rus­sian ap­petites with eco­nomic levers of in­flu­ence, sport, on the con­trary, tries to take ad­van­tage of th­ese re­sources in every pos­si­ble way. Not wor­ry­ing about the rep­u­ta­tional con­se­quences.

TO THE FOOTBALL OR TO JAIL?

Ukraine, tak­ing only third place in its qual­i­fy­ing group, did not qual­ify for the Rus­sian cham­pi­onship. Ru­mours even spread in Rus­sia that our team lost their fi­nal match to the Croats on pur­pose to avoid un­nec­es­sary trou­ble. Whether this was the case is nei­ther here nor there. It is im­por­tant that even with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Ukrainian team, pas­sions around the World Cup in a hos­tile coun­try con­tinue to rage. The two most con­tro­ver­sial is­sues are vis­its by Ukrainian fans to the ag­gres­sor coun­try and whether it is ap­pro­pri­ate to broad­cast matches from Rus­sia.

Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures, about five thou­sand Ukraini­ans have pur­chased tick­ets for World Cup 2018 matches. The places of res­i­dence of th­ese "lucky ones" have not been re­ported. It is ob­vi­ous that some live in the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, but use their Ukrainian pass­port when pur­chas­ing tick­ets, be­cause pa­pers claim­ing to be doc­u­ments of var­i­ous "Peo­ple's Re­publics" are not le­git­i­mate. How­ever, judg­ing by the avail­able in­for­ma­tion, there are a lot of peo­ple in­ter­ested in at­tend­ing matches that live in cities con­trolled by our coun­try, espe­cially Kyiv and Kharkiv.

The Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs of Ukraine has posted of­fi­cial warn­ings on its web­site about the dan­gers that may be en­coun­tered by th­ese so-called Ukraini­ans. How­ever, this did not, un­for­tu­nately, serve as a de­ter­rent. It is un­for­tu­nate not be­cause we pity the peo­ple who are go­ing to watch football in the heart of the ag­gres­sor coun­try dur­ing the fifth year of war, but be­cause in the fu­ture those for whom "sport and pol­i­tics don't mix" risk end­ing up in Rus­sian prison by chance (for ex­am­ple, be­cause of an old photo on so­cial me­dia) and will have to be ex­changed for those who came to Ukraine not for sport, but for war. How­ever, th­ese peo­ple think in some­what dif­fer­ent cat­e­gories.

The at­ti­tude of Ukrainian ul­tras to­wards the World Cup is Rus­sia is clearly hos­tile. Even if the Ukrainian national team were there, a trip to a hos­tile ter­ri­tory would still be out of the ques­tion due to the fact that be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion of Dig­nity so­called Ukrainian law en­force­ment of­fi­cers had data­bases of fans that fell into the hands of the en­emy with the on­set of the Rus­sian-Ukrainian con­fronta­tion. In the end, even if th­ese lists did not ex­ist, sup­port­ers per­ceive any­thing linked to Rus­sia as hos­tile and con­demn those who are go­ing to the World Cup. There is good rea­son why ticket hold­ers for the tour­na­ment try to keep a low pro­file. Jour­nal­ists who found such peo­ple were only able to pub­lish their ma­te­rial un­der the con­di­tion that they would not use real names. The in­ter­vie­wees are afraid of con­dem­na­tion even from their own rel­a­tives.

A PRO­PA­GANDA TOOL FOR IN­TER TV

The sit­u­a­tion with TV broad­casts is shrouded in mys­tery. Pub­lic chan­nel UA: First, which owns the rights due to the fact that they were ac­quired when Yanukovych was at the helm, has clearly stated that matches will not be broad­cast from Rus­sia. The only football chan­nel in our coun­try, un­sur­pris­ingly named Football and owned by Ri­nat Akhme­tov, also re­fused to buy out the rights.

"The World Cup in Rus­sia is big-league pol­i­tics," says Volodymyr Kra­mar, a jour­nal­ist at Football. "The tour­na­ment it­self is re­garded as an at­tempt to demon­strate the great­ness of the Krem­lin and Rus­sia. Per­son­ally, I do not want to see it. Some might say that the Rus­sians will play three matches in the group and maybe get through to the knock­out phase, where they will play at most one game. Why should a spec­ta­tor not watch the rest of the matches and see the best teams in the world? Bear in mind that any broad­cast is not just the 90 min­utes of the match that only shows the play­ers and coaches. It also in­cludes pro­mo­tional ma­te­rial, ad­ver­tis­ing, ti­tle se­quences and "im­por­tant" shots of "im­por­tant" peo­ple. The tour­na­ment is al­ways sur­rounded by a huge amount of ac­com­pa­ny­ing in­for­ma­tion, and in the case of the Rus­sians, pro­pa­ganda. All the Krem­lin big­wigs will surely turn up for the open­ing match and fi­nal. Their smug mugs will be shown con­stantly around the world. And hon­estly, I have a ques­tion: why should a Ukrainian au­di­ence watch them?"

How­ever, Ukrainian me­dia out­lets were not unan­i­mous in this re­gard. What is for­eign to a rea­son­able Ukrainian is the most ac­cept­able thing in the world for a chan­nel owned by Fir­tash and Liovochkin. In the end, it is not even im­por­tant that the TV chan­nel In­ter has the right to broad­cast the World Cup. It is im­por­tant that the man­age­ment of UA: First co­op­er­ated. Un­der­stand­ing who would get their hands into th­ese broad­casts and in which spirit the in­for­ma­tion would be pre­sented. In this case, it would prob­a­bly be bet­ter for National Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Com­pany chair­man Zurab Alasa­nia and his sub­or­di­nates to take per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity. It is un­wise, to put it mildly, to let broad­casts of an event that will be watched by mil­lions of Ukraini­ans fall into the clutches of hos­tile forces. Espe­cially dur­ing a war in which the pre­sen­ta­tion of in­for­ma­tion plays such a key role.

It is worth pay­ing trib­ute to Ukrainian com­men­ta­tors. Since In­ter does not have its own sports team, af­ter buy­ing the rights, the chan­nel's man­age­ment be­gan to look for pun­dits to work live on air dur­ing games at the Rus­sian World Cup. "I'd rather go to close down In­ter than work there," Denys Bosyanok, one of the best com­men­ta­tors in Ukraine, re­marked when hear­ing their pro­posal. Dmytro Dzhu­lai, who at one time re­fused to work on Akhme­tov's TV chan­nel and now com­men­tates on the in­ter­na­tional Se­tanta Sport Eura­sia, re­acted to the call from In­ter with ironic laugh­ter. Cur­rent Kyiv TV jour­nal­ist Rus­lan Svirin also re­fused to co­op­er­ate with the chan­nel where he ini­tially made a name for him­self.

Nev­er­the­less, we know that na­ture ab­hors a vac­uum. Even more so as there are too many un­em­ployed sports jour­nal­ists in Ukraine. Olek­sandr Tyn­hayev, Yuriy Kyrychenko, Olek­sandr Suk­man­skiy and In­ter em­ployee Ro­man Kademin ob­vi­ously do not care that their coun­try is in the fifth year of a war and it is ob­vi­ously not very eth­i­cal to in­dulge those who pro­mote the pro­pa­ganda of the ag­gres­sor coun­try.

An­other thing is that there may not be any broad­casts at all. A week be­fore the start of the tour­na­ment, the par­lia­men­tary Com­mit­tee on Free­dom of Speech sup­ported a draft res­o­lu­tion that pro­hibits the broad­cast­ing of the 2018 World Cup from Rus­sia. Among those who sup­ported the de­ci­sion was, no­tably, pres­i­dent of the Football Fed­er­a­tion of Ukraine An­driy Pavelko. Although this was not such a sur­prise, be­cause even pre­vi­ously the FFU re­fused to ac­credit Ukrainian jour­nal­ists for the event. How­ever, it is not yet clear whether this de­ci­sion will ac­tu­ally lead to a ban.

AT A TIME WHEN PO­LIT­I­CAL ELITES ARE TRY­ING TO DAMPEN AG­GRES­SIVE RUS­SIAN AP­PETITES WITH ECO­NOMIC LEVERS OF IN­FLU­ENCE, SPORT, ON THE CON­TRARY, TRIES TO TAKE AD­VAN­TAGE OF TH­ESE RE­SOURCES IN EVERY POS­SI­BLE WAY. NOT WOR­RY­ING ABOUT THE REP­U­TA­TIONAL CON­SE­QUENCES

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