When FIFA decide on the hosts for the 2018 World Cup on December 2, I shall be rooting for Russia, rather than England, the land of my birth. I guess I should note straight off that I write about football in Moscow and spend a lot of time here. But that’s not the only reason why I want to see the world’s biggest sporting event awarded to the country that gave us Lev Yashin and Andrey Arshavin.
The best reason I can see for giving the tournament to Russia is very simple – logic and a sense of fair play dictate that the World Cup should be played in the planet’s largest country at least once.
But let’s move on from logic and honesty alone. After all, this is FIFA we’re talking about.
Russia has been accused of suffering from endemic racism and corruption. These criticisms are valid. A lot of Russian football fans – and indeed officials – are racist, and corruption here is so widespread that it’s kind of hard to imagine how the country would run without it.
But that’s no reason to write Russia off.
The black footballers turning out for Spartak, CSKA and so on every weekend are, for those Russians who have never been abroad (the vast majority) truly and utterly alien. Many of them will have grown up with racist jokes and stereotypes as the norm.
Observing the UK media’s attempts to dismiss Russia’s bid over the racist actions of some dim-witted fans, it’s hard not to recall the biggest game I have attended between two English Premier League sides in the past few years. Namely, the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow between Manchester United and Chelsea.
Although 100% neutral, I ended up in the Man Utd end, amid a group of fans who really didn’t like Chelsea’s Didier Drogba very much. Something they weren’t shy about attempting to let him know over the din of some 75,000 screaming supporters. And what was it they didn’t like about him the most? His insistence of running at their team’s goal? Or perhaps his habit of falling over under tackles too easily?
Granted, they weren’t over the moon about either of these things – but what really seemed to get them was that he was – “A black cunt” who should “fuck off back to Africa.”
Wow, I thought. It’s just like being at a Moscow derby.
Of course, I understand that England has had far more success in stamping out racism in football than Russia, whose efforts have been minimal, to put it kindly.
But I also remember the 1980s, the days of Cyril Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson, the first black footballers to play high-profile professional football in modern England. I recall the monkey noises that greeted them at stadiums all over the country, and the shock when Anderson became the first black player to pull on an England shirt.
In England, the first black footballers sprang from English society: they were representatives of one of the first generations of Afro-Caribbean males to come of age in Britain, and it was inevitable that some of them would end up playing for their local professional teams. Had they not, then there would have really been something seriously wrong with British society.
The black footballers turning out for Spartak, CSKA and so on every weekend are, for those Russians who have never been abroad (the vast majority) truly and utterly alien. Many of them will have never spoken to a black person; all of them will have grown up with racist jokes and stereotypes as the norm.
So the World Cup can only help. It will be, in other words – a short, sharp shock. Russia will be forced to adapt to black fans and sides. It might not be a cure-all, but it will be a start.
It already seems to be having an effect – just last month, Russian state TV’s weekly round-up of the English Premier League was presented by one of the country’s very few “black Russians.” With the country’s bid being damaged by allegations of racism, his sudden appearance is unlikely to have been coincidental. It may have been a cynical move, but positive discrimination is undoubtedly a good move in this case.
Of course, the World Cup is unlikely to do anything to combat Russia’s inherent corruption, but that’s not really anything for FIFA to be overly concerned about. After all, if the World Cup was awarded to countries on the basis of their moral standing, (and the apparent subtext of a lot of British media reports on the World Cup bids seems to be that it should be) then the UK would be out of the race already over its complicity in the illegal invasion of Iraq.
If the bid was all about infrastructure, England would win hands down. But Russia has a reputation for pulling off vast, seemingly impossible projects (although admittedly Gulag labour was used for a lot of them), and it seems unlikely that the Kremlin would allow Russia’s image to suffer over a failure to come up with the goods if the country does get the nod.
It’s also worth pointing out that in many respects Russia is a lot more politically stable than the UK. Putin is a lot more likely to still be calling the shots in Moscow in 2018 than the coalition government led by Cameron and Clegg, meaning that the Kremlin’s guarantee of state support is much more solid. Like it or not.
It will be, in other words – a short, sharp shock. Russia will be forced to adapt to black fans and sides. It might not be a cure-all, but it will be a start.
Attendance at Russian domestic games can be pitifully low, but this is unlikely to be an issue if it gets the tournament. Just last week, Russia took on Belgium in the provincial city of Voronezh, and attracted a capacity crowd for the meaningless game. Russia’s regions are starved of high-quality football and the World Cup would be like water to a drowning man.
The Russians also love a big event – especially as they don’t get many. The whole country went Eurovision Song Contest crazy when Moscow hosted the big night of pop and pap in 2008, with state media claiming that it proved Russia was “finally returning to Europe and reclaiming superpower status in politics and culture, including popular music.”
It’s frightening to imagine what the response to the World Cup would be.
Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, the tournament would see a massive swamped with foreigners, especially if visa requirements are lifted, as promised. Russia can be extremely insular, especially outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, and the arrival of hoards of fans from all over the world would do more than even FIFA can imagine as far as changing attitudes goes.
Of course, I’m also likely to see a lot of work come my way if the World Cup does go to Russia. And like the FIFA reps entrapped by the British media, I’m only human...
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