A political World Cup

Russia’s successful hosting of this event should also put a renewed spotlight on that country, in the hope that things will change for the better.

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Russia 2018 has turned out to be one of the best World Cup tournaments in recent years. The football was beautiful, the contest threw up many surprises, and fans were delighted by a plethora of goals.

The organisation was also impeccable, and – contrary to expectation – supporters were generally well-behaved. Above all, it was a pleasure watching fans put their differences aside to revel in the joy of football.

If one moment alone can capture that spirit, it might have been Panama’s resounding cheer at their only consolation goal in a match they lost 6-1. It was a cheer, not for the joy of winning... but just for the joy of playing.

As such, Russia 2018 reminded us of much that is truly beautiful about the ‘beautiful game’. But like all major sporting events, the World Cup also had its political aspects.

From the lasting image of Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, drenched in the rain, wiping off the tears from team captain Luka Modric’s face after the final, to French President Emmanuel Macron being feted by French players in the dressing room, politics was never too far away.

The display of the Kosovar flag on the football boots of Kosovo-born Swiss player Xherdan Shaqiri also had political motivations. Shaqiri’s home country remains in political limbo after a bloody war to split from Serbia, despite declaring independence in 2008.

That small gesture had large ramifications: it could be a reminder of the commitments much of Europe has already undertaken towards its youngest state... commitments which are, however, still outstanding.

This World Cup was also about France showing the world its cosmopolitan self, with a team made up mostly of persons of African descent. It may not have been an explicit political statement; yet it the timing could not have been better for Europe to showcase the benefits of migration, as the continent struggles to deal with the phenomenon, both logistically and politically.

And down to the closing minutes of the tournament, there was also the Pussy Riot pitch invasion in the final, which sought to highlight the repression of government opponents in Russia. Without detracting from the pleasure of a well-organised World Cup, it must also be remembered that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is anything but a paragon of human rights. As the Pussy Riot incursion reminds us, political opponents are still harassed and sometimes killed, and gay rights are almost non-existent.

There is, however, another less immediately noticeable political side to international football. Part of the spectacle is provided, not by the players on the pitch, but by the fans in the crowd. The World Cup also brings all the colour and energy of human diversity directly into our homes through TV... and by sharing in the elation or heartbreak of diverse peoples, we also – however briefly – look beyond the political, ethnic, economic or diplomatic barriers that divide us as nations.

This also puts some perspective onto terms like ‘patriotism’, ‘nationalism’, ‘populism’, that are currently gripping European and global discourse. In a political context, those are words we usually associate with right wing extremism. Yet, as our shared passion for football also illustrates, there is nothing either ‘right-wing’ or ‘extreme’ about passionately loving one’s country. Stripped of its political connotations, ‘nationalism’, too, can be a beautiful thing.

But this very fact also urges us to be cautious. The glitz and glamour of world football undeniably creates a feel-good factor, and that is certainly no bad thing in itself. All the same, it should not serve to divert attention from ongoing global political realities: some of which are far from rosy.

This has often raised controversy in connection with the host countries of sporting or cultural events. Questions have been raised regarding both the selection of Russia and also Qatar which is to host the next (2022) World Cup; and in separate contexts, there are often calls to boycott specific events held in specific countries.

Already there are reports suggesting that next year’s Eurovision Song Contest – held in Israel – will be a platform for international lobby groups to raise awareness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In all such cases, the underlying question is whether a country’s human rights record should somehow ‘disqualify’ it from hosting such events... or, in less extreme form, whether other countries should refuse to take part.

There is no hard-and-fast answer. If we are to draw a line at football, or musical events...  why not extend the argument also to trade and/or diplomatic relations? That would, at best, be an isolationist approach: and historically, isolating countries is not a very good way to strengthen global protection of human rights.

No host country’s record will ever be washed away by the beauty of football. Nor, however, should that record cloud the thrill of a global spectacle like the World Cup. If anything, Russia’s successful hosting of this event should also put a renewed spotlight on that country, in the hope that things will change for the better.

Ultimately, it was football that gave Pussy Riot a global platform to send their message... and their message got out, despite the maximum security.

That, too, is part of the beautiful game.

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