Deeper Than Oil: Why I’m still glad Russia got the World Cup

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
One year on from FIFA’s controversial decision to award Russia the 2018 World Cup, I’m still happy they did. Despite everything.

One year on from FIFA’s controversial decision to award Russia the 2018 World Cup, I’m still happy they did. Despite everything.

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 observing the U.K. media’s attempts to dismiss Russia’s bid over the racist actions of some dim-witted fans, it was hard not to recall the biggest game I had 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 b**tard” who should “f**k off back to Africa.”

Wow, I thought. It’s just like being at a Moscow derby.

Of course, I know 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 – hopefully - be forced to adapt to black fans and sides. It might not be a cure-all, but it will be a start. Or perhaps I’m being hopelessly naïve?

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 seemed to be that it should be) then the UK would have been immediately excluded from race over its complicity in the illegal invasion of Iraq.

If the bid was all about infrastructure, England would have won hands down. But Russia has a reputation for pulling off vast, seemingly impossible projects (although admittedly Gulag labor was used for a lot of them), and it’s unlikely that the Kremlin will allow Russia’s image to suffer over a failure to come up with the goods.

It’s also worth pointing out that in many respects Russia is a lot more politically stable than the UK. Putin is much 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.

Attendance at Russian domestic games can be pitifully low, but this is unlikely to be an issue if it gets the tournament. 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 will be.

Just like the Eurovision Song Contest, the tournament will see Russia 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 will 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. And, like the FIFA reps entrapped by the British media, I’m only human…


The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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