Editor’s Let­ter

Esquire (UK) - - Editor’s Letter - Alex Bilmes

par­ties that kids and their mums and dads can en­joy to­gether, most likely from afar. Like Sochi 2014 and Russia 2018.

There’s nothing new here. Despots are keen on soft power, as well as hard power. They al­ways have been. And the World Cup, like the Olympics, has al­ways been there, to help them out.

The Olympics, fa­mously, was there for Hitler in 1936. The World Cup had been there for Mus­solini, two years ear­lier, when the Ital­ians won at home, and again in 1938, when the Ital­ians won again, in France. Ital­ian foot­ball as we know it to­day was ba­si­cally in­vented by the fas­cists, as a pro­pa­ganda tool.

The World Cup was there for the mur­der­ous mil­i­tary junta in Ar­gentina in 1978 — the fo­cus of Will Hersey’s ex­cel­lent piece, on page 86. That was a shame­ful episode in the his­tory of the world’s favourite sport, but for some rea­son the world’s favourite sport does not seem ashamed. Which is how the World Cup comes to be in Russia, this time. It’s there for Vladimir Putin, just when it suits him most. And it will be there again, in 2022, for the rulers of Qatar, to help them dis­tract us from their de­light­ful record on hu­man rights.

The England team didn’t go to Italy in 1934. Not for moral rea­sons. We were in dis­pute with the body that then or­gan­ised it. We didn’t go to Ar­gentina in 1978, ei­ther. Again not for moral or po­lit­i­cal rea­sons. We didn’t have the op­por­tu­nity to reg­is­ter a protest then. We hadn’t qual­i­fied. We were too crap. (Four years later, Bri­tain reg­is­tered a dif­fer­ent kind of protest at the junta, by go­ing to war with them over the Falk­lands.)

It won’t hap­pen, it will never hap­pen, but this time we do have an op­por­tu­nity not to re­peat the mis­takes of the past. We could not go. We could boy­cott. This would not be the English FA “politi­cis­ing sport”. In the sense that it has been used as a weapon of soft power, sport has been politi­cised since the Greeks. Fifa has politi­cised the World Cup, con­sis­tently, by al­low­ing re­pres­sive regimes to stage it. In­stead we would be re­act­ing to its politi­ci­sa­tion. It’s been said that such a boy­cott is a pa­thetic re­sponse to Putin’s crim­i­nal­ity, and that he won’t care a jot if we don’t turn up. It’ll be our loss, the loss of foot­ball lovers ev­ery­where, not his. But cul­tural and sport­ing boy­cotts are deeply sham­ing to the regimes whose poli­cies they ex­plic­itly protest.

How­ever, since it’s true that a World Cup with­out England might not be, if we’re hon­est, con­sid­ered such a great loss to the com­pe­ti­tion, we could lobby oth­ers to join us. Italy and Hol­land are out al­ready. But imag­ine a World Cup with­out them, and England, plus Ger­many, France, Spain, Brazil and Ar­gentina.

As I say, it’s not go­ing to hap­pen. In­stead, our for­mal protest is to an­nounce that Prince William, as pres­i­dent of the FA, won’t go to Russia. Worse still, for Putin, no Bri­tish gov­ern­ment min­is­ters will at­tend. Hon­estly, how will the world’s foot­ball fans man­age with­out them? Talk about tak­ing the shine off the whole tour­na­ment. One can only imag­ine the howl­ing gales of laugh­ter that swept through the cor­ri­dors of the Krem­lin as Theresa May out­lined this un­com­pro­mis­ing ap­proach to in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy.

Of course, our Os­car and many mil­lions like him would be gut­ted if the World Cup didn’t hap­pen. But I’m hope­ful that when, years later, he came to un­der­stand the rea­sons why he was de­nied the thrill of watch­ing us be­ing taken apart by de Bruyne and Eden Haz­ard and the rest of them — the fact that kids his own age in the Mid­dle East are be­ing killed with their fam­i­lies — he might feel a tiny bit proud of that.

England won that match in Ber­lin in 1938, by the way. It was 6–3. You don’t need a five year old to tell you that that is the pre­cise def­i­ni­tion of a hol­low vic­tory.

The England foot­ball team give the Nazi salute be­fore kick-off against Ger­many in Ber­lin, 14 May 1938

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