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OP-ED | 14-07-2018 09:04

Editorial: The geopolitics of football

Russia’s master throughout this 21st century, Putin has constructed an authoritarian, racist and homophobic society in his own image.

Tomorrow the curtain descends on the vast Russian stage of the 21st FIFA World Cup with the final between France and Croatia (occupying the position we hoped was earmarked for Argentina, according to the seeding as Group D winners). While the main focus of local media coverage is the blame game for the Albiceleste’s underwhelming performance, with justified apprehension about falling off the map in future given the disorganisation and lack of youthful talent, this editorial will view this supreme sporting jamboree from a more global and geopolitical perspective, starting with the geo(graphy) and concluding with the political.

Firstly, “World Cup” is a misnomer. Fully 148 of FIFA’s 227 members have never participated throughout the 88 years of this tournament, a huge majority. Those countries actually lifting the trophy are an even more exclusive club housing under eight percent of world population on two continents (a percentage which a Croatian triumph tomorrow would hardly change). But even taking the totality of the 69 participants making any mark – ranging from pentachampions Brazil to countries with one solitary point (such as Bolivia or Iceland this time out with that draw against Argentina) – this figure would rise to just over 28 percent of world population (although it would grow considerably with the 10 other totally unsuccessful participants since they include such populous countries as China and Indonesia when the Dutch East Indies). The regional breakdown is heavily skewed – Europe and South America account for 41 of the total 79 with Finland and Venezuela the only nations of any size missing, while the Afro-Asian bloc accounts for three-quarters of world population but only 16 of the 69 participants notching up any points.

Nor is there to be any real change this time out despite the generally closer results of this tournament. Not only will Europe (with seven of the last eight finalists) be lifting its fourth consecutive cup in Moscow tomorrow but success is now limited to its Western half since Eastern Europe (a steady source of finalists in the first three decades of tournament history) lacks the rejuvenation of immigration – Croatia’s feat is the outstanding exception here. Afro-Asian progress was uneven – every Asian participant won a match for the first time in World Cup history but no African country advanced beyond the first round (both phenomena were influenced by freak results).

We could continue with this largely neglected aspect of World Cup analysis but time for politics. Some say football is politically blind, as evidenced by the fact that there have been some highly unsavoury hosts of the sport’s biggest tournament over the years, such as Italy’s Benito Mussolini in 1934 and Argentina’s military dictator Jorge Videla in 1978 – Russia’s Vladimir Putin is now a slightly less sinister addition to this list. Russia’s master throughout this 21st century, Putin has constructed an authoritarian, racist and homophobic society in his own image. It is presently in the middle of what Human Rights Watch has called “the worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era.” Putin’s view of his nation is also one that involves taking a heavy-handed role in world affairs, whether it be election-influencing, incursions in Syria and the Crimea or poisoning incidents in Britain.

So what, we may ask finally ourselves, is the World Cup doing in Russia? From one side, the question is an easy one to answer, Putin clearly sought to host the tournament in a bid to improve his and his nation’s image, to “sportwash” it, as the practice is now commonly known. The Russian leader may well succeed in his aim – many of the predicted horror stories and pitfalls (including fears about the nation’s endemic hooligan and racism problems) have not come to pass and the focus for the most part has been firmly on the field. Russians, in a true rarity, have been able to gather in mass numbers to watch games and have welcomed the world’s visitors onto their doorstep, including it seems LGBT fans. These are freedoms that are not the norm in Russia and they should be celebrated, despite the fact that most expect things to return to normality post-tournament.

All of which brings us toat another unsavoury protagonist of this World Cup: FIFA itself. The bidding for the hosting of both this tournament and the one that follows in Qatar took place in the murkiest of circumstances and since then, FIFA’s leadership has been disgraced by the avalanche of corruption allegations behind it and heads have rolled. While there are new people in place (according to some, imposed by the United States) and claims of a new era, football’s governing body still stinks of corruption and favours and above all, money.

Both halves of geopolitics lend themselves to endless analysis but we will close with a final simple query. It is a fact that FIFA is an organisation of great power, one that is able to convince governments across the world to hand them a taxfree financial bonanza and freedom to do as they like for a month. It has great sway over world leaders. But couldn’t they do more with this power?

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