Tinker, tailor, soldier, footballer – the Russia house has no smiley people

Photo: PA

HOW the US must be kicking themselves. They cannot boycott the World Cup because they didn’t qualify, but surely Donald Trump would just love to tell the world, “we’re not going” as the diplomatic arguments become more and more intense.

This World Cup is up to its neck in problems, but this could be the new normal for FIFA’s flagship competition. We’ve got Qatar 2022 around the corner and then the new, super-improved 2026, which will undoubtedly be awarded to the US, if only to prevent more US-led investigations into the inner-workings of FIFA.

But could 2018 be the beginning of the end for the World Cup? If there is a boycott, it will surely create a precedent that rolls on to 2022 and then 2026, Russia may decide to play “tit for tat” and not go to “United 2026” – if they qualify of course. It could be Olympics 1980 and 1984 all over again. And maybe goodbye World Cup?

Russia have wasted no time in declaring the whole debate as a “propagandist narrative” but in truth they have made it easy for the rest of the world to make a stand. It is likely, nevertheless, that this will be all about playground posturing, for Russia and the rest of Europe are too interconnected.

From a football perspective, Russian money is bankrolling a number of clubs and projects. Outside of Russia, Schalke 04 of Germany and Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade are both sponsored by Gazprom, the all-consuming energy giant. Gazprom is also a sponsor of the UEFA Champions League and an official partner of FIFA.  For a long time, the Disneyesque advertisements that used to bookend UEFA Champions League TV coverage gave the impression Gazprom was steeped in benevolence and smiling control room executives, yet it also seemed to imply a message of “piss us off and we’ll switch off the lights all over Europe”.  Gazprom is 50%-owned by the Russian government and accounted for around a third of Europe’s gas supply in 2016. Withdrawal of services could be catastrophic.

The economic stakes are higher than any football issues, and both are dwarfed by the cynical attack on Sergei Skripal. Indeed, the Guardian’s Barney Ronay makes a good point: “Sporting boycotts have had an effect but the world has changed. We are inextricably linked in so many ways. How absurd to boycott the World Cup when Russian money and influence is still utterly bound up in our economy, legal system and politics….Russian wealth, legitimate and occasionally questionable, is hungrily consumed by the great sluicing global laundry that is the London property market.”

Despite sanctions that have been in place, Russian trade with the UK has a healthy trajectory. In 2017, it was up by more than 28% the first half of the year.

Marriages of convenience should not get in the way of doing what is right, though. There is little doubt the Russian World Cup, something they’ve longed for, will be used as a huge PR exercise aimed at showing the planet that Putin and his acolytes are happy, song of joy-singing good guys waiting to welcome the world. It is debatable if it will get to that point should the current game of diplomatic table tennis continue. For example, Moscow has been threatening a blanket ban on every British news outlet if the UK revokes the license of RT, a channel that has been used regularly by certain British politicans. The BBC’s John Sweeney warned that, in an era of clever use of the media by Putin, “taking on the Kremlin” is a risky business, describing it as “a dark triangle”.

The British media has also reverted to Cold War rules in condemnation of all things Russian, painting the sort of imagery that was once a feature of the post-atomic world. The Daily Mirror’s suggestion that “if we don’t boycott the World Cup, England fans will almost certainly die in Russia” seems over-alarmist, although the appetite for a World Cup summer is lower than any previous competition since 1990. The first phase of ticket sales saw just 24,000 from the UK, around a quarter of the 2014 World Cup take-up at this stage. Compare that to 338,000 from Germany, 186,000 from Argentina and 154,000 from Mexico – the events of Euro 2016 and growing tension between the UK and Russia would seem to have discouraged a lot of people.

A recent poll seeking views on whether England should stay at home revealed that a third were in favour of pulling out, a very significant portion given the official line has always been to keep politics out of sport.

Still, the Russians believe there is a conspiracy in play. The Russian foreign ministry said the British have been “unable to forgive” Russia for winning the right to host the competition. The Moscow press warned some time ago that the West would launch an all-out campaign with the intention of discrediting Russia and undermining trust. They obviously hadn’t factored in the sort of incident we saw in Salisbury.

But it is not just England that is considering drastic action. Iceland, Denmark, Australia, Japan and Poland have all suggested that they would consider a boycott if England should pull out. Germany has rejected any involvement in a show of action – at the moment.

In the German media, the editor of Germany’s Bild newspaper, Joachim Reichelt, has stated his publication would support England should they go through with it. The former MD at Chelsea, in other words an ex-employee of Roman Abramovich, has called on France, Germany and Spain to join England in refusing to go to the World Cup. He claims this would hurt Putin’s popularity more than any economic or diplomatic sanctions. Labour MP, Chris Bryant was a very vocal advocate and claimed Putin would use the World Cup like Adolf Hitler exploited the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “Putin loves using these moments to glorify Russia,” he said.

But Rob Hughes, the former Times journalist now writing for the Straits Times, said “no British World Cup boycott can derail Putin’s dance with FIFA”. That may well be true, as Russia has so much tied-up in FIFA and world football.

Putin may well use the almost universal condemnation of Russia to create a siege mentality that unites the country against the west and builds-up the passion for a home team that will rank among the weakest in World Cup 2018. A partisan home crowd, such as those seen in Argentina 1978, can add goals to a team and help on that journey through a tournament.

What will actually happen? England will surely go to Russia and there will probably be no absentees, apart from those obvious non-qualifiers. But will it be the right thing to do? Pragmatism will surely win the day and the only way to come to terms with that is by removing the notion that this is Russia’s World Cup. The competition, whose lustre has undoubtedly been dulled by greed, over-expansion and media moguls, does not belong to Russia, it belongs to the whole football community. That shouldn’t stop gestures of contempt, displeasure and morality, but here’s one way to retain the dignity of the competition but still show Russia that we’re not happy. Once it is over, the world’s leading football nations should make their stand with FIFA. “We’ve kept your competition intact, now do something positive.” The fact is, if 2018 disintegrates, the World Cup will definitely be in its death throes, a spiral that will continue with the new-found trend of boycotting the party.


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