Of all the times for the planet to assemble and play a soccer tournament – well, most of the planet to assemble and play a soccer tournament – you couldn’t possibly have picked a more loaded and awkward moment than this one, right now. Because the World Cup rivals the Olympics for the most geopolitically charged sporting event out there, one that’s readily served as a stage for proxy war, a consolidation of power or an all-out PR offensive.
(For those keeping score at home: England played Argentina in the quarterfinals in 1986, just four years after Great Britain had bloodily reclaimed the Falkland Islands off the Argentinian coast, following an Argentine invasion. Argentina won a testy game 2-1 thanks to one wonder goal and one “Hand of God” goal from Diego Maradona. In 1934, Benito Mussolini leveraged the World Cup to show off his fascist Italy and engineered a win for the home team. In 1978, Argentina did much the same two years into General Jorge Videla’s murderous military regime. An Argentine victory, however controversial, went some way towards quelling dissent. And, more recently, Germany, South Africa and Brazil used the World Cup to buff up their image to the world in 2006, 2010 and 2014, respectively.)
But this time around, the World Cup so happens to come in the midst of complete political disarray and the possible undoing of the world order that rose from the ruins of World War II. Which perhaps makes it sort of fitting that a newly isolationist United States isn’t at the world’s tournament for the first time since 1986. It doesn’t have a seat at the table – albeit unwillingly in this case.
Here’s where we should probably mention that the Americans didn’t qualify. Do we really need to say that they didn’t qualify? OK. They didn’t qualify.
While the World Cup kicks off, the world roils. The Iran nuclear deal is on life support; the half-century North Korean standoff might be in some sort of end game; the G7 threatens to split apart; Syria’s civil war rages on; Great Britain is divided over whether it wants to be in the European Union or not; the American embassy to Israel has been moved to Jerusalem, inflaming the Arab world; and the Gulf blockade on Qatar continues.
Russia played a role, whether directly or not, in several of these crises, and now it will host many of the principals in a sport that can never quite help but lay bare its geopolitical undercurrents.
Yet all of this merely scratches at the surface of the troubling storylines going into this World Cup. Because the Russians do not exactly have a shortage of accusations leveled at them. Vladimir Putin’s quasi-dictatorship has created an environment of impunity in oppressing minorities and really anybody who isn’t white and straight. Russia has been blamed for downing a Malaysian passenger plane in 2014, killing all 298 on board; more or less invading Ukraine; definitely annexing Crimea; pretty much holding Georgian territory in South Ossetia; and allegedly poisoning former intelligence operatives abroad. Oh, and then there’s the systematic, government-sponsored meddling in foreign elections through fake news and assorted hacking efforts.
We haven’t even touched on the issues within soccer itself. The Russian Premier League is famous for its deeply ingrained hooliganism and rampant racism. Both are significant threats to this World Cup and have made even players so uncomfortable that England defender Danny Rose, who is black, has said publicly that he won’t be bringing his family with him to Russia for that very reason.
Then there’s the assertion that the process by which Russia won the right to host this World Cup was anything but clean. England was the towering favorite for that edition but came last in the vote, behind joint-bids from Spain and Portugal, and the Netherlands and Belgium.
While nothing was ever proven about corruption in Russia’s campaign to woo FIFA – and it was eminently woo-able back in 2010, when Qatar somehow beat the United States to the 2022 tournament’s hosting rights – there are allegations aplenty. Two FIFA executive committee members were apparently given Picasso paintings – ironic, since Spain was also a bidder – although sufficient evidence was never found.
That was rather a trend. Because once suspicions arose, investigators discovered that the laptops on which Russia’s campaign had run had been destroyed before they could be inspected. The staggering cost overruns and plainly obvious graft that marked the construction phase of the tournament itself was, of course, never properly addressed either.
To this backdrop, the World Cup begins. And provided none of these issues spill out onto the field, they will largely be glossed over. Instead, the broadcasts of the games will be framed by beautiful aerial shots of the all the landmarks and soft-focus featurettes on Russia’s culture and people.
This is always the dichotomy of the World Cup. Once the ball begins rolling, the problems are forgotten, at least temporarily. And that’s the power of a sporting event that typically garners a total audience of a billion people. It has a habit of pulling your gaze from the important stuff to the carefully orchestrated spectacle, beamed across the world in dazzlingly high production values.
Once Lionel Messi takes off on a dribble, the human rights stuff just kind of fades to the background. Just as soon as Cristiano Ronaldo settles behind a free kick, crouched into his signature stance, you won’t be thinking about all the rest. And that, too, is sort of the point of hosting a World Cup.
Like all the World Cups before it, the Russian hosts will probably pull it off in spite of myriad challenges and deliver a scintillating product. And for a month, we’ll pay close attention. By the end of it, you might even feel better about the world, until the last shreds of confetti have fallen back to the ground, at least.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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