If the World Cup changes Russia, we will all be better for it

Stuart Thomas Columnist

By Stuart Thomas, Stuart Thomas is a Roar Expert

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    Growing up, the USSR was always a peculiar thing. My earliest memories of the vast expanse to the north east of the patchwork quilt that is mainland Europe, are of the games of the XXII Olympiad in Moscow.

    Sourcing information mostly from radio broadcasts at the time, I followed the fortunes of an Australian contingent that battled its way to a total of nine medals against the might of the home nation and the drug fueled East Germans; to be exposed later for systematic doping.

    Only 80 nations competed with 66 boycotting the event due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. Many individuals from competing countries, including Australia, also chose to stay away.

    As an eight year-old it didn’t mean that much. Having it explained to me in layman’s terms merely cemented a stereotypical perception of the country; a strangely aloof and secretive place, with a pointed dislike and mistrust of the United States of America.

    Of course, the Russians returned serve four years later with their own boycott of Los Angeles’ turn to host the summer games. Neither nation probably realised just how close they were to a potential extinguishing of the final embers of the Cold War that had existed between the two. Political upheaval was nigh.

    Vladimir Putin

    Vladimir Putin

    The Eastern powers were to fall. Germany was reinvented after the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the USSR had become financially unviable and domestically unstable. The nation we now know as Russia was formed in December 1991; altering the geo-political future of Europe indefinitely.

    It’s withdrawal from a powerful union of socialist states to what is now labelled a semi-presidential constitutional republic presented immense challenges. Ethnic tensions have elevated to conflict at numerous times, as groups have fought for their own languages, religions and cultures.

    The current impasse between Russia and Ukraine has its modern origins in those early years of independence, with gas lines, nuclear weapons and geo-political influence being three considerable sticking points.

    Despite Russia increasingly engaging economically, competitively and culturally with the western world in the twenty-seven years since its independence, some dark throwbacks to Cold War secrecy and narrow mindedness have come to light in recent times.

    Suspicion and mistrust has grown and the level of corruption clearly evident in FIFA around the time of Russia being awarded the right to host the 2018 World Cup did nothing to quell either. Many felt the world should be gathering in a place symbolically representative of the ideas of peace, brotherhood and community. In short, not Russia.

    The last decade has seen Russia confirm its stance on LGBT rights, or lack thereof; an issue that cast a dark shadow over the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Eurovision Song Contest has become even more of a political, block-voting farce, thanks to Russia’s stance on transgender, homosexuality and certain participants’ connections to the Ukraine.

    The 2014 military intervention into Ukraine and subsequent deaths of over 8000 people heightened awareness in the west of Russia’s questionable motives, as did the IOC’s banning of the entire Russian team from the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang due to ‘systematic manipulation’ of anti-doping rules four years earlier.

    It should be noted that 28 Russian athletes had their appeals upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

    British Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement on the likelihood of Russia’s involvement in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and the accusations of tampering in, and the undermining of, the United States Presidential Elections have both added to the aforementioned stereotypical and negative perception of the country.

    And then, in 2018, the FIFA World Cup arrived in Russia.

    It was a celebration from which many fans chose to stay away; a silent political protest over basic human rights and matters of equality.

    An event where the political backdrop came to the forefront as Croatian officials sacked assistant coach, Ognjen Vukojevic for inciting political tensions with a pro Ukrainian post on social media.

    It was a tournament where the host nation’s own team produced some wonderful play and took the Russian fans on a magical journey of fairy tale proportions.

    Russia beat Saudi Arabia in the World Cup Opener

    Russia have made it to the next round. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

    It was also a fortnight where the world came to be mesmerised by football, to party, to celebrate diversity and in some ways, to ignore the political realities lurking in the wings.

    All in all, it appears to have been a raging success, less a few lunatics here and there destroying public vehicles and throwing punches when filled to the brim with alcohol and soaking in the warm Russian sun.

    The Russian people appear the innocent victims when it comes to that ever-present perception I spoke of earlier. They were utterly enchanted by both the event and the visitors it drew from around the globe.

    One hopes that their political will may steel and change is indeed to come in Russia. The World Cup conjured a sea of genuine and honest smiles and hopefully, was a prelude to a new and less suspicious Russia; more open and contemporary in its views and practices.

    What we saw during the World Cup was real. The challenge for the nation is to ensure that it wasn’t a mask; some sort of four week public relations campaign to garner international respect and crush the stereotype.

    Let’s hope that the next time the world meets in Russia, in whatever capacity that may be, the long lasting impact of the 2018 World Cup can be seen.

    Stuart Thomas
    Stuart Thomas

    Stuart Thomas is a sports writer and educator who made the jump from Roar Guru to Expert in 2017. An ex-trainee professional golfer, his sporting passions are broad with particular interests in football, AFL and rugby league. His love of sport is only matched by his passion for gardening and self-sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @stuartthomas72.

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    The Crowd Says (20)

    • July 12th 2018 @ 7:08am
      Kangas said | July 12th 2018 @ 7:08am | ! Report

      aron Swan
      Memorable second half and extra time from Croatia.
      England are still limited team but had an awesome tournament

      I hope the final is just as good, and Croatia win .

      Finally a tribute to Gareth Southgate who has united England as one nation more then any politician could do .

    • July 12th 2018 @ 7:13am
      Buddy said | July 12th 2018 @ 7:13am | ! Report

      Spoken with words of optimism that bely the current political scene although it is possible that Mr Trump can cut across it all which appears to be scaring the big european players. The more skeptical side of me is suggesting that when the final McDonalds wrapper has been cleaned up on Sunday and the last plane load of football tourists has left Russian airspace it will be business as usual.

      • July 12th 2018 @ 8:53am
        MQ said | July 12th 2018 @ 8:53am | ! Report

        Guaranteed.

    • July 12th 2018 @ 7:21am
      peeko said | July 12th 2018 @ 7:21am | ! Report

      as powerful and uniting as football is, Russia used this as a propaganda tool and will return to business as usual

    • July 12th 2018 @ 9:08am
      AR said | July 12th 2018 @ 9:08am | ! Report

      There seems either a conscious or lazy impulse in these optimistic puff pieces to interchange Russia (the people, or more specifically, the football fans) with Russia (the Kremlin under Putin).

      The tournament has been fantastic and visiting fans haven’t been bashed. That’s a big plus.

      However, whilst journalists are still silenced, political opponents jailed or killed, homosexuals & minorities outlawed, countries invaded and claimed, and civilian planes shot out of the sky, I’ll be somewhat wary of hoping that football’s transformative power can extend to Putin’s Russia.

      • July 12th 2018 @ 9:54am
        Aligee said | July 12th 2018 @ 9:54am | ! Report

        Sounds a bit like the UK under the last couple of PM’s.

        • July 13th 2018 @ 12:42am
          Jumbo said | July 13th 2018 @ 12:42am | ! Report

          Eh?

      • July 12th 2018 @ 11:38am
        chris said | July 12th 2018 @ 11:38am | ! Report

        Put it this way AR.
        Football has a better chance of making a change globally (in anything) than the sport you follow.

        • July 12th 2018 @ 6:01pm
          AR said | July 12th 2018 @ 6:01pm | ! Report

          “…the sport I follow”..???

          I follow soccer, tennis, cricket, golf, swimming, rugby, Australian football and Le Tour. And even archery, diving and equestrian every 4 years.

          But if you believe the mystical power of ‘football’ can change Putin’s policies (both in and out of Russia) just because it’s the single sport you follow…hey…nothing I say will change that.

          • July 13th 2018 @ 10:02am
            chris said | July 13th 2018 @ 10:02am | ! Report

            yes whatever.
            And oh I was very grateful for not being bashed while I was there.

    • Roar Guru

      July 12th 2018 @ 9:26am
      AdelaideDocker said | July 12th 2018 @ 9:26am | ! Report

      Good article, Stuart.

      But no matter how fantastic the event is (and I’m not denying the Russian’s appear to have done a phenomenal job hosting), I think it’s important we don’t equate the event and the people to the Russian political regime.

      Berlin hosted a rather good Olympics shortly before … you know what, that’s a bad example. I just think it’s right to be cynical, and that you shouldn’t downplay Russia’s qualms on the basis of one event.

    • July 12th 2018 @ 9:51am
      Aligee said | July 12th 2018 @ 9:51am | ! Report

      Not sure whether or not the WC will change Russia, but at least 15,000 South African white farmers will seemingly take the plunge.

      https://www.rt.com/business/432375-russia-south-africa-farmers/

      • July 12th 2018 @ 3:28pm
        Evan askew said | July 12th 2018 @ 3:28pm | ! Report

        They should be careful. Russia has a history of deportation and genocide toward minorities. Especially Germanic minorities. Where are the Crimean goths, Crimean germans, volga germans and the ingrian Finns and Swedes?

        • July 12th 2018 @ 4:12pm
          Aligee said | July 12th 2018 @ 4:12pm | ! Report

          I think they are pretty desperate ATM.

          In fact if you run a pipeline from the Kimberleys to Perth which empties more water in a day during the wet season than what is in Sydney Harbour we have quite a bit of land in WA available to open up – endless really.

          Would have been a great post WW2 project with genuine refugees from Europe who actually worked hard.

          • July 12th 2018 @ 4:36pm
            BigAl said | July 12th 2018 @ 4:36pm | ! Report

            No No NO ! (sorry)…

            That water would not flow naturally – it would have to be pumped – and pumping water more than 100km
            ( maybe 70km now ?) costs more than making it (desalination ).

            This idea has been floated before (pardon the pun!)

            • July 12th 2018 @ 6:22pm
              Aligee said | July 12th 2018 @ 6:22pm | ! Report

              Pumping via solar panels in the West costs ?.

              Lucky CY O’Connor didn’t hear about all this negativity!.

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