The Football World Cup tournament kicks off in Russia today, with the country hosting the quadrennial event for the first time ever in the contest’s nearly 90-year history.
For the next four weeks, billions of people around the world will feast their eyes on one of the globe’s most-loved spectacles.
Thirty-two nations will compete in the “beautiful game” with 64 matches in total being held in 11 different cities across Russia, from Kaliningrad in the west to Yekaterinburg in the east.
It will be the 21st World Cup event organized by the sport’s governing body, FIFA, or Federation Internationale de Football Association, since the very first games were held in Uruguay in 1930.
Ahead of the opening of the 2018 tournament, Russian President Vladimir Putin shared the joy and honor of his country hosting the event. “Generations of Russian fans have dreamed of this day,” he said while addressing the FIFA congress in Moscow.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino playfully referred to history, saying that “Russia has never been conquered,” but this week the country will be “conquered by football,” he quipped with a smile.
The FIFA chief went on to say that for the next month the whole world will be similarly conquered by the sport as nations tune in every day to enjoy the drama, talent and celebrations.
What a sweet surrender for all of humanity! Not by force, aggression, armies or violence, but by sheer joy of a beautiful game, shared by all human beings as equals, united in emotions, elevated above petty nasty things like jingoism and chauvinism, prejudices and stupid animosities.
Putin also thanked Infantino for FIFA’s commitment to holding the games in Russia, and for “keeping politics out of sports”.
Indeed, Infantino and FIFA deserve respect for steadfastly adhering to the selection of Russia as the host country. For the past four years, there has been a scurrilous Western media campaign to discredit Russia over a range of trumped-up political accusations.
Western politicians have even called at various times for Russia to be de-selected as the host nation for the 2018 tournament. When FIFA itself was embroiled in bribery allegations back in 2016 – when Infantino took over from Sepp Blatter – the whole affair seemed to be driven by an ulterior agenda to smear Russia. Notice how that supposed scandal has since faded into oblivion; proof that it was always a non-issue and just another contrived Western media campaign to denigrate Russia.
One of the most disgraceful and fatuous attempts at sabotaging Russia’s World Cup event was the British foreign secretary Boris Johnson making the comparison earlier this year to the 1936 Berlin Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany. Johnson was trying his best to hype up the propaganda war over the alleged poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal – another media campaign that like countless others has faded into oblivion.
Anyway, as Putin remarked this week, the World Cup has finally come to Russia – and thanks in part to FIFA under Gianni Infantino not being pressured into succumbing to odious politicization of the event.
President Putin spoke for millions of football fans and ordinary people around the world when he praised the great sporting event for providing a forum for common humanity. He said the enjoyment of the games is a chance for people to share culture and celebrate our one humanity, and to “understand that other countries like their own are home to kind, enthusiastic and open-minded people, and all of them want to live in peace, communicate with each other, visit each other, and watch and play football together.”
That is a powerful cultural, and in a wider, benign sense, political force. There might seem a contradiction in the maxim of “keeping politics out of sports”. Yes, if by “politics” it is meant to mean a narrow, nationalistic, antagonistic form, then definitely that must be excluded. But the wider politics, or perhaps philosophy, that Putin was alluding to is beyond narrow, nationalistic agendas. It is about common humanity. If football, and sports generally, reinforce that higher value, then bring it on.
Getting back to the nastier politics and in particular the anti-Russia agenda that has been extant over recent years, this week saw more examples in the most petty and pathetic way. The day before the World Cup opening in Moscow, Western news media ran non-entity stories, whose real purpose was not to inform audiences, but to make a last-ditch bid to smear Russia.
France 24 TV, the state-owned channel, carried a report alleging that certain football stadiums were not finished to requisite building standard for the games. It was a lame report by the channel’s Russia correspondent Thomas Lowe, who never seems to have anything positive to say about the country. Skimpy details were padded out with hearsay complaints from a few disgruntled residents griping about nearby construction. Is that the best France 24 can come up with? The day before the big event. How cheap!
A second report in the Washington Post carried grim warnings about Russian football fans allegedly having outsized racialist hostility. Lamentably, racist sociopathy is an ugly tendency among a small minority of football fans in many countries. England and Italy have particular problems. There is no sound indication that Russia is any worse. Besides, the real aim of the Post’s report seemed to be more about casting a last-minute cloud over Russia as a football venue.
These last two media examples are the type of “politics in sports” that should be abhorred. This kind of politics has nothing to do with bringing people together. It is all about dividing and conflicting, and abusing sport for unscrupulous agendas.
In any case, when the Russia World Cup games get underway all the naysayers and negative numbskulls will be swept away by the global euphoria. Our common humanity will overwhelm all the petty snipers and would-be warmongers.
Russia has the honor of being home to all of humanity for the next four weeks.
The small-minded Russophobes are going to be left on the sidelines of this great global spectacle.
So, let the games, and let the celebrations begin, for all of humanity.