Prior to the summer of 2016 and the football European Championships in France, the host nation had been left shaken by terror attacks in its capital and those of its neighbours. It is evident that it is when we are gathered and enjoying events in large crowds that we are at our most vulnerable from those who wish us harm and naturally, France increased its security presence to ensure that the tournament did not compromise the safety of the public. This was France protecting the values of liberal democracy in exceptional circumstances.
With the World Cup next summer, one does not hold out much hope for Russia reciprocating such impeccable standards. The choice of host for the 2018 World Cup is already ridden with controversy, and it is for the fault of Russia itself.
It has been said that sport and politics should never mix. However, sometimes the pair are so inextricably linked that separation is impossible. Just as the 1936 Olympics saw Adolf Hitler’s promotion of his Nazi state in Berlin, the 2018 World Cup will be the opportunity for another demagogue, Vladimir Putin, to flex his muscles on the international stage. There are many reasons why the promotion of Russian political and social life is not a good thing.
Firstly, one must start by considering the political culture that Putin has established during his eighteen years in power. Human Rights Watch say that last year, Russia further tightened restrictions on free expression and have intensified the persecution of critics of the Kremlin and the treatment of the opposition leader, Alexei Navalry is so outrageous that it evokes humour. Navalry has been imprisoned three times this year, the most recent occasion was for committing the crime of organising protests. His imprisonment was to prevent him from leading a rally on Putin’s 65th birthday and Navalry joked in court that his sentence was a birthday gift. At least he sees the funny side.
Russia’s human rights record is equally grim in relation to its notorious treatment of sexual minorities. This year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia’s ‘gay propaganda’ law banning the promotion of homosexuality “reinforced stigma and prejudice and encouraged homophobia”. More shockingly, polling from Russian Public Opinion Research Centre revealed that 41% of Russians opined that the authorities should persecute people with “untraditional sexual preferences” to “exterminate the phenomenon”. It appears that social attitudes in Russia are so belonging to the Dark Ages that they make Ann Widdecombe look like a progressive liberal.
Returning to the Euros in France, the French authorities would have been concerned enough by the terror threat without tensions between football fans of competing nations to deal with. Trouble broke out in Marseilles and when it emerged that English fans were in the thick of it, it was easy to believe that the terrace louts of the eighties had returned to represent their country abroad once more, this time with post-Brexit triumph. This was not the case.
In accounts given by fans in France, the behaviour of Russian fans was of “military organisation”. Russia’s new breed of football hooligans were clad in English clubs’ attire as to blend in with the crowds, posted calling cards to other nations in French villages and carried gumshields and weapons to be used in the combat they sought. Numerous football tourists were hospitalised and one was left in coma following encounters with Russian ‘fans’ who the British police described as having “serious intent to carry out barbaric violence”.
As a nation, Britain, more accurately England, should be embarrassed by the football thuggery attached to previous generations. While all nations will invariably have their idiots, we have reason to be more fearful with a major tournament soon taking place on Russian soil. After the clashes in France, senior Russian football official and politician Igor Lebedev tweeted “well done to our boys – keep it up!” and a former spokesman for Russian football, Andrei Malosolov, said “at the very least, they gave a kicking to citizens of a country that is, both historically and geopolitically, Russia’s greatest enemy”. It appears that there is strand of thought that encourages football violence when wrapped in the national flag, and we should fear it. This shall surely be enough to deter many young, male football followers from attending the tournament.
If we were to ignore these many reasons that Russia are unfit to host such a magical competition, we would maybe use the justification that politics has no place in sport, and the football should be allowed to exist in isolation. Once again, we are unable to do so because Russia’s record on doping is fundamentally conflicting with the fair play rules of sport. The McLaren Report by the World Anti-Doping Agency investigated the systematic state-sponsorship of doping by the Russian government leading to the banning of Russian athletes from competing in the subsequent Olympic Games in Rio. Some shocking emails confirmed that blind Paralympians were given banned substances without their knowledge; nothing was off-limits. In sporting circles, Russia should be absolutely disgraced for its lies. As Bryan Fogel, creator of the documentary Icarus that depicted the scandal, so wonderfully put it “the truth is a banned substance”.
This is the overwhelming case for why Russia is the wrong choice of host for the World Cup next year; note that I have not even mentioned Putin’s aggressive foreign policy: the devastation of civilian deaths and destruction in Syria, the aggression and human rights abuses in Ukraine. All this said, it appears that the absence of democracy and troubling social issues shall, for now, remain the elephant in the room. The hosting of major sporting events should be a privilege for nations, an opportunity to boost their economies and showcase the very best of their cultures to the rest of the world. In the case of Russia, us visiting nations would do well to avoid it.