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The Tainted World Cup

Integrity Initiative Op-Ed

Just over a month before the football World Cup begins in Russia, the Russian Football Federation has been fined by the international governing body, FIFA, for racist chants at an international friendly match between Russia and France. Despite Russian claims to the contrary, racism remains a serious problem in Russian sport and society. This is just one more example of why Russia is an inappropriate venue for the 2018 World Cup.

The world’s favourite sport, football, is big business. This year’s champions in England, France, Germany and Spain are clubs with wealthy backers who have seemingly bottomless pots of money. Although two years ago Leicester City surprised the football world by winning the English Premier League on comparatively modest resources, that was a blip. The big boys threw more money into the game to try to ensure that such a scenario would not be repeated. And the international game has gone the same way, to the point where morality and ethics count for nothing.

In December 2010, football’s international governing body, FIFA, voted to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and, at the same meeting, the next tournament, in 2022, to Qatar. Eyebrows were raised, and allegations of corruption were made over both awards; allegations which have never completely gone away.

But even if FIFA dismissed the allegations, it is harder to accept the way in which the governing body and the national associations have chosen to ignore events in the subsequent eight years which suggest that the holding of the World Cup in Russia flies in the face of all ethical codes, be they in sport or society in general.

Russia is run by a dictatorship, which allows no opposition. In March this year the country held supposedly democratic elections for its president. Supposedly democratic, because Alexei Navalny, the one person who could have been a genuine alternative to Vladimir Putin, the sitting president, was banned from standing on trumped-up charges of corruption. Someone who would have been an even stronger candidate, Boris Nemtsov, had been permanently removed three years earlier, when he was shot in the back and killed just a stone’s throw from the Kremlin in Moscow.

And it’s not just Russia’s internal politics which leave much to be desired. As Putin was glorying in his country playing host to the Winter Olympics in 2014 – before the Games were even over – he gave the order for his troops to invade the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea; and then started a war in the eastern part of Ukraine which has cost over 10,000 innocent lives.

But, many say, you shouldn’t mix sport and politics (even though this naïve phrase has been disproved time and again). Let’s just take the sporting aspect, then. Following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was found guilty of doping on a massive scale – not just in winter sports, but across the sporting spectrum. And not just in Sochi, but for many years before. Russian athletes were banned from competing under their national flag at both the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016 and the Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018.

Somehow, this is still not enough for the apologists to accept that Russia is the wrong place to host the football World Cup in 2018. So let’s look at some specific incidents related to football. At the 2016 European Championships in France, Russian football fans deliberately targeted English fans and attacked them using extreme violence. As the police reported, the Russian fans went through areas where English fans were gathered “like a swarm of locusts”, beating anyone they came across – women and children as well as men. (One of the Russian ringleaders is currently in a French prison awaiting trial, having been picked up by German police en route to a match in Spain in early 2018 with the intention of causing more trouble.)

In the Russian parliament, the State Duma, a Russian MP congratulated the Russian fans for showing their mettle.

In the month before the 2018 World Cup is due to begin, the Russian Football Federation has been fined for racist chanting by fans at the friendly match in St Petersburg in March between the national team and France. This is far from the first time that Russia has been accused of racism in sport. For example, while on a winter break in early 2018, Moscow Spartak tweeted a photo of their black players exercising, with the caption, “Look at our chocolates melting in the sun!”

Racism, like homophobia, is endemic in Russian society. It is illegal to promote “gay propaganda” in Russia. The interpretation of the law is flexible enough that simply waving a rainbow flag could see foreign fans being arrested. And the Russian police have a reputation for dealing with such incidents in a violent fashion.

A country run by a corrupt dictatorship; which encourages cheating among its sportsmen and women; which praises its thugs who beat up football fans of other countries; and which has no tolerance for diversity and attacks black people and the LGBT community is considered by FIFA and its member associations as a suitable venue for one of the world’s greatest sporting occasions. When exactly did football lose its soul?

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