Eyebrows were certainly raised when, in December 2010, FIFA selected Russia to host the 2018 World Cup. They inched even higher when Qatar were awarded the 2022 competition and were practically subsumed by hairlines around the country when fourteen members of FIFA were indicted by the FBI under allegations of corruption and bribery in 2015. Despite this media attention, the actual competitions around which controversy swirled felt like the distant future, out of sight and out of mind.
Now, however, with benchwarmers having frantically manufactured January-transfer-window moves for better playing time and a ticket on the plane to Russia it becomes impossible to ignore the fact that the tournament is only four months away. And when billions of fans tune in to matches next June, the troubling ethical issues with Russian sport – and Russian politics – will become uncomfortably tangible, raising unavoidable questions about whether we should be tuning in at all.
A 2013 survey reported that nearly three-quarters of Russian citizens believe homosexuality to be socially unacceptable and, even more draconian, it has been reported that over a hundred gay men are being held in a concentration camp in the Russian republic of Chechnya. These moral issues are impossible to isolate from the football and LGBT+ couples making the trip to Russia will be warned not to hold hands or display public affection. Are we rendered complicit by adding to viewing figures, supporting a competition, and by extension a country, displaying such deep-seated homophobia?
Racist chanting on the terraces is also a commonplace in the Russian Premier League. Nazi slogans and the abuse of black players threatens to mar a competition that should be celebrating multiculturalism – the transcendent force of football between nations. Only recently, Spartak Moscow U-19 player Lenid Mironov was charged with the racial abuse of Liverpool starlet Rhian Brewster, in just one more in a long procession of allegations which should have been stamped out decades ago. It is easy to point the finger at FIFA for endorsing the Russian Federation, and arguably condoning xenophobia, but such flagrant disregard for equality and human rights surely begs the question of whether we should go one step further and boycott such a forum for bigotry as viewers.
Even more conflicted than fans watching from behind the shelter of TV screens will be those thinking of travelling to Russia to see games live. Having witnessed the violence that a battalion of only a few hundred Russian ultras could inflict on thousands of (not unaccountable) English fans in France at Euro 2016, many will be questioning their plans, not only for moral, but for safety concerns. It seems that every domestic club in Russia is tied to a fight club of hooligans who not only watch battles on the pitch but fight each other off it. In a political climate where senior politicians such as MP Igor Lebedev urged thugs in Marseille to “Keep it up” because he doesn’t “see anything terrible in fighting fans”, regarding it instead as a nationalist defense of honour, the cocktail of invading drunk foreign fans and easily-provoked Russian militant diehards is worrying to say the least.
On the pitch, the matches themselves are brought into disrepute by the widely reported state-sponsorship of doping throughout Russian sport. Former head of the Moscow anti-doping agency, Grigory Rodchenkov, has recently blown the whistle on plans to swap out urine samples of Russian players at the World Cup so that they could take performance enhancing drugs just as they did at the Sochi Winter Olympics. In which case, we wouldn’t be watching an equal contest for the crown of greatest footballing nation but a biased mockery, a game of FIFA with the sliders turned up.
Despite this, the fact is that the World Cup is the supreme competition of the biggest sport in the world, whether it is held in Russia or on the moon. At first glance, choosing to miss such a historic event seems incomprehensible. However, if we want the future of the World Cup, the history still to come, to be fair and moral, perhaps this year it will be necessary to leave our televisions switched off. As far as Gareth Southgate and the boys are concerned, we probably won’t miss much anyway.
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