OPINION: Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Craig Foster examines the balance that must be struck between enjoying Russia 2018 and examining the geopolitical issues that surround the host nation.
As we all eagerly anticipate the opening game this Thursday for the 21st FIFA World Cup, we might take the time to consider a range of aspects that bring an uncharacteristic level of unease to the quadrennial celebration.
Every Cup marks a moment in time that we later recall, nostalgically, through the prism of football. I remember well watching my first in 1982, a marvellous tournament with the Brazilians, French and Italian sides providing a reference point for an aspiring young player for years to come.
Russia 2018, however is more troublesome than any in recent memory.
Brazil had its own considerable internal domestic issues, but this World Cup comes against a geopolitical backdrop that is certainly in our minds as we prepare to lose our minds through the action.
Some may question whether Russia should be hosting at all. Certainly, I do.
The function of awarding 2018 and 2022 needs no further illumination other than to recall how horribly corrupt FIFA was subsequently exposed to be, nevertheless it is here and, sitting in a café in Moscow in Red Square, I am determined both to enjoy the experience as much as normal, but also to remember the problems Russia has that need to be discussed now that the spotlight is at its most intense.
38 Australians lost their lives in MH17 in which the Australian Government believes Russia directly participated. This casts a different spell over the 21st Cup for any Aussies, and we will keep these families in mind throughout, even as we get carried away with joy.
A difficult balance, but our fellow Australians should be comfortable that we have not dismissed this horrific event, rather we can magnify it throughout. Nor will we forget about the annexation of Crimea, poisoning of spies, egregious human rights issues domestically and the Syria conflict.
Given MH17, we will all need to confront the question of whether Australia should have pulled out of the event. It is a difficult one, however the question is to what end, consequences and ultimate outcome?
Was I related to the 38, I may well feel strongly in favour, however it seems to me that by participating Australia can use the tournament to further highlight these issues, to educate the entire country about our diplomatic position and, indeed, the rest of the world.
Further, boycotts are riven with problems since, these days, if we apply the human rights test, we have considerable reason not to play against multiple nations to the point where even our qualification campaign would be seriously in question.
No need to remind ourselves, in any event, that our own human rights record regarding refugees recently is an absolute disgrace.
Football is irrevocably intertwined with politics, as the world’s largest game, but the argument that participation through sport allows cooperation and diplomacy that political channels can often not achieve is reason to separate the two when it comes to playing in Russia 2018.
Holding a World Cup in the context of political and social unrest and problems is far from new of course. Look as far back as the ‘Mussolini’ Cup of 1934, used to espouse fascist propaganda or the military junta in Argentina in 1978.
Putin, like those before him, seeks to use the Cup of cups to project an image that is clearly at odds with the reality that his own people, and the international community understands.
Equally, though, the World Cup juggernaut brings a globalised media train that carries an ability to highlight issues the world needs to know about, and Putin will quickly lose the control he so desperately seeks.
Many journalists are here not for football, but to expose issues whilst the football plays on, and this is one of the greatest elements of a World Cup in my experience.
Human Rights groups are able to get international traction as interest increases. Whether this translates into concrete action, or whether Putin wins in the end as the world is satiated by the game. I pray it is the former.
In future, hosting can only be awarded to countries with sound human rights legal frameworks, protections and commitments and, for the next month, FIFA’s supposed commitment will be put to the test.
So as the Russia/Saudi Arabia match rapidly approaches, and our excitement builds, we can know that recognising the broader issues, discussing them, promoting change and assisting organisations to get the word out where appropriate only enhances our experience of the FIFA World Cup.
It is, after all as our mate Les used to say, the world’s greatest cultural festival, a coming together of the planet.
We do not suspend our beliefs on human rights when the ball is kicked and neither does playing in Russia 2018 endorse in any way Russia’s approach to their citizens or the world.
Which is why we should take this opportunity to discuss how the planet lives together and treats each other, even as we wear the green and gold and scream our allegiances to the skies.
For a World Cup is far from only about football.