Editor’s Let­ter

Esquire (UK) - - Editor’s Letter -

on 14 may 1938, the england foot­ball team played Ger­many at the Olympic Sta­dium in Ber­lin. It was five years into Adolf Hitler’s rule of the coun­try, just two months since the Ger­man an­nex­a­tion of Aus­tria. Promi­nently po­si­tioned in the crowd of 110,000 were Ru­dolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels and Her­mann Go­er­ing. As the Ger­man na­tional an­them played be­fore kick-off, the England play­ers lined up and raised their arms in a Nazi salute. The or­der for them to do so had come from the For­eign Of­fice, which claimed to be act­ing in the in­ter­ests of An­glo-Ger­man re­la­tions; this, our school­boy his­tory re­minds us, was the pe­riod of ap­pease­ment of Hitler, un­der Neville Cham­ber­lain.

The play­ers had protested against the idea be­fore the match, it’s said, but been over­ruled. They did what they were told, as foot­ballers, for the most part, still tend to do. The blame lies not with them, not re­ally, but with those who al­lowed them to be used as high-pro­file pawns in a geopo­lit­i­cal game that de­lib­er­ately le­git­imised a regime that — while not yet in the full ma­tu­rity of its grotesque degra­da­tion — was al­ready well on its way to lev­els of bar­barism rarely pre­vi­ously imag­ined.

The only pos­si­ble mes­sage that could be taken from this dis­play of re­spect and friend­ship to the Ger­man gov­ern­ment (this was a “friendly” match, af­ter all): if Stan­ley Matthews and his team­mates think it’s OK to play with Nazis, to “Heil Hitler”, then why shouldn’t ev­ery other rea­son­able English man, woman and child? It was a pro­pa­ganda coup. The England play­ers, will­ing or un­will­ing, were its stars.

World Cup fever started early in my house, this year. This was thanks to our res­i­dent five-year-old foot­ball fa­natic, who talks of lit­tle else but England’s chances against Bel­gium in Kaliningrad on 28 June. Slim to none, I’ve warned Os­car, but he hasn’t yet been through the end­less cycle of hopes id­i­ot­i­cally raised and then ba­thet­i­cally dashed; he be­lieves in the power of Harry Kane — who is, as he points out, al­most as good as Kevin de Bruyne.

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Osc?”

“How many days is it un­til the twenty-eighth of June?”

“Er, let me see, Osc… 67?”

“So yes­ter­day it was 68 and to­mor­row it’ll be…”

“66, yes.” “Daddy?”

“Yes, Osc.”

“’66 is when England won the World Cup.”

“You’re right! It was. But don’t take that as an omen.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes, Osc.”

“What’s an omen?”

The wallchart went up in mid-April, with its de­light­ful cen­tre­piece of Cris­tiano Ron­aldo cap­tured mid-or­gasm, hav­ing pre­sum­ably just scored a goal, or pos­si­bly caught sight of him­self in a mir­ror. It’s not po­si­tioned in some out of the way cor­ner of his bed­room, but — to the quiet con­ster­na­tion of his mother and his older sis­ter, who are less per­suaded by the at­trac­tions of the beau­ti­ful game, and the Por­tuguese popin­jay’s gurn­ing vis­age — down­stairs, by the back door, in full view of all of us, all the time.

The Panini al­bum — you know they hand th­ese things out for free, like a crack dealer of­fer­ing com­pli­men­tary sam­ples near the school gates? — is sep­a­rated from its sta­ples al­ready, thanks to Os­car’s con­stant flick­ing of its pages. I’m in the hole for hun­dreds of pounds in stick­ers — and we still haven’t had a sniff of the man Os­car refers to, very prop­erly, as “Ney­mar Jr”. (Got about eight Eric Diers, though, if any­one’s in the mar­ket for swaps.)

Os­car’s love for foot­ball is pure: he sees drama, colour, ex­cite­ment, ad­ven­ture, tri­umph and dis­as­ter, and larger than life char­ac­ters per­form­ing daz­zling feats of al­most im­pos­si­ble skill and dar­ing. To coin a cliché, what’s not to love?

He knows the World Cup is tak­ing place in Russia, and as a re­sult of that he can pro­nounce Kaliningrad and even Nizhny Nov­gorod: we’re play­ing Panama there, on 24 June, he tells me, hav­ing once again con­sulted the all-know­ing Panini. Pre­vi­ously, his knowl­edge of Russia was lim­ited to the fact that it is very big and very cold and has been in some wars — some­times on our side, some­times not. (He’s very in­ter­ested in wars.)

I’ve told him that Russia has pro­duced some of the most amaz­ing writ­ers and artists and mu­si­cians and that it has an as­ton­ish­ing his­tory, rich in drama, colour, ex­cite­ment, ad­ven­ture, tri­umph and dis­as­ter, all that stuff he likes. And he is im­pressed by this, a bit, as much as you can be if you’ve no real idea what a grown-up is bor­ing on about and you just want to get back to your foot­ball stick­ers.

The truth is, Russia is one of those coun­tries that’s harder to get a grip on, if you’re five (or, in­deed, 45) than the places Os­car is al­ready sold on, like Italy — pizza, ice cream, Fer­raris — or Amer­ica — su­per­heroes, ham­burg­ers, Michael Jack­son. (Mas­sive Jacko fan; I blame the par­ents.)

Would he like to go to Russia? He would. Why? To watch the World Cup, silly. Yes, but oth­er­wise? Oth­er­wise he’d rather go to Africa (lions), or In­dia (tigers), or Brazil (rain­for­est), or Italy (rea­sons listed above) or France (Dis­ney­land) or Ja­pan (Dis­ney­land) or Amer­ica (rea­sons listed above, plus Dis­ney­land). Russia? Far down the list.

You are aware of the dif­fer­ence be­tween hard and soft power. The present Rus­sian gov­ern­ment uses both. It in­vades sov­er­eign states, spon­sors the gassing of Syr­ian chil­dren and as­sas­si­na­tions by poi­son­ing on Bri­tish soil. At home it jails crit­i­cal jour­nal­ists and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents, or worse. It holds sham elec­tions. Also, it throws fun sporty

The editor. (Prior to rul­ing him­self out of this sum­mer’s World Cup on moral grounds)

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