The political game

BACK in 1980, when the Moscow Olympics opened, hundreds of white doves were released as a symbol of peace. BBC commentator, David Coleman was quick to remark, “look at how they are all flying west…somehow symbolic” – or words to that effect. The Olympics were heavily boycotted that year, in protest at the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Four years later, in a tit-for-tat response, the USSR and its allies, some 15 countries, refused to go to Los Angeles. That didn’t stop the game from being the most successful of all time, but it does underline that when it comes to sport being used on the political stage, we have been here before.

Competitions like the Olympics and the World Cup are supposed to be standard bearers for harmony and healthy competition between nations. Dare we

Photo: Коля Саныч CC BY-ND 2.0

There’s been plenty of talk about teams staying away from Russia 2018 but should this have happened, we may well have triggered-off a cycle that could, in the worst case, end the World Cup as a credible competition. FIFA’s flagship beanfeast has taken a few hits to its reputation ever since 2018 and 2022 were awarded to Russia and Qatar repectively, but just consider that the next competition, in the Middle East, is already heavily burdened by controversy and moral judgement. It is not out of the question that we may see boycotts by 2022. And then, if 2026 gets awarded to the US-Canada-Mexico triumvirate, will Russia (if they qualify) opt out, as the Soviets did when they refused to travel to Chile for a play-off in 1974? By the time we get to 2030, and the likelihood of an Argentina-Uruguay axis hosting the centenary tournament, the World Cup could be severely damaged.

There’s little doubt that Russia will do everything in its power to ensure 2018 is a success – they’ve longed to host the World Cup for a considerable time. For all the posturing and threats, there’s no doubt that the Russian government are desperate for the competition to be a shop window. It is not dissimilar to 1978 when people were anxious about Argentina hosting the competition, but it was one of the most exhilarating and eye-opening events of its time.

We’re in a different age, now, and there are few surprises to be discovered in world football, indeed the world in general – technology, mobility and globalisation have introduced us, and made us more familiar with, the wonders, and disappointments, of the planet. We may be on the brink of a period comparable to the Cold War, but the difference is, we know all about Russians today, we work with them, we rely on economic cooperation with them (just consider the oil and gas!) and we no longer gasp with amazement when their football teams run out onto the pitch and discover that their players have one head, two arms and two legs.

And because the world is global, we have to see the FIFA World Cup as belonging to everyone. A total of 872 qualifying matches were played before the list got down to 32 nations. The first game took place on March 12 2015 – Timor-Leste and Mongolia in Dili. Timor-Leste won 3-0, but because they fielded ineligible players, they had to forfeit the result. Right from the start, this World Cup has had its hurdles to overcome!

The point is, the World Cup is not the possession of the country that happens to be hosting the finals. True, Russia will hope to benefit financially from the competition, but they are merely the custodians of the FIFA World Cup in 2018. In 2014, FIFA made a profit of

US$ 2.6 billion, while Brazil, the hosts, made just US$ 500 million. Russia had to spend a huge amount to host the World Cup, some US$12 billion (for the record, revenues of the ubiquitous Gazprom in 2017 totalled US$37 billion), but there’s no guarantee they will make huge profits, and the logistical and security aspects of the competition are probably going to cost more than any other World Cup.

I believe that the very future of the World Cup as we know it is at stake. We live in a complex world at the moment, one that has many uncertainties, although we know more today than we have ever known as a civilization. At the same time, there are (believe it or not) more important things than football. But, as I mentioned in my opening gambit, sport brings people together and promotes benign combat. Let’s hope people remember that this summer in Russia.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, reproduced by kind permission.

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