Adding kick to the game

Priyansh | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

Go the whole hog: Many supporters of the Peruvian team have sold house, car, or other assets to be in Russia for the tournament   -  REUTERS/DAMIR SAGOLJ

Perhaps the most secular of faiths, football is helping many dissimilar worlds merge in Russia

When Vladimir Putin ascended the dais at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, he welcomed the world to Russia. Drawing a thread dating back to 1897, when the first match was recorded in history books, the Russian President spoke of the long-standing love for football in his country — the implication being that Russia was only fulfilling its destiny by hosting the FIFA World Cup.

Putin’s words had a special resonance in the city of Moscow, where the tournament kicked off. The current administration holds a reverential view of Josef Stalin, and it was Stalin’s dream that the erstwhile Soviet Union capital be the global centre of a secular civilisation. This desire is reflected in the buildings erected during his years in power — a heavy influence of Renaissance architecture is unmissable. For a month at least, Russia is the global centre of the most secular of faiths — football.

The Stalinist regime, however, was also known for its disaffection for the foreigner, and an image of a difficult Russia was carefully nurtured. This also influenced how Russia was seen from the outside; apprehensions about the country are strong to this day. The experience of the visitor at the World Cup, though, has drawn a contrast. Russia has gone out of its way to welcome visiting fans. The free visa and public transport, particularly, have encouraged many to travel for the tournament.

My conversations with fans and journalists over the past week reflect the degree to which Moscow’s cosmopolitan nature has taken visitors by surprise. That would not have been the case if popular accounts of Russia were not free of elisions and obscurities.

As historian Robert Service discussed in A History of Twentieth Century Russia, the country itself was a shape-shifting entity over the course of the century. This brought a multinational character to the Russian identity, which remained undefined for a long time.

The strains of vague definition are particularly visible in Moscow, a city steeped in its historical interactions with foreign influences. In this long-running negotiation now stand the thousands of fans who have arrived for the World Cup. However, such is the wealth required to travel for this biggest football show on earth, the fans cannot be an accurate representation of Moscow’s cosmopolitanism.

Yet, there is something they do represent. Earlier this month, when FIFA revealed the ticket sales in each country, it was not surprising to see the US on top. Even though the national side has not qualified for the World Cup, plenty of fans of other nationalities are residents who are invested in the fortunes of their native country.

Over the past week or so, I have met fans of Iran, Mexico, Colombia, to name a few, who have travelled from the US. Most of them are well-to-do expats, partaking of the benefits of global capitalism — for which the World Cup is a standard bearer now.

In this party for the rich, however, there are crevices. Peru stood fifth on the list of ticket sales and its fans have shown strength in numbers. Many have sold their house, car, or other assets to be here; one man lost his body shape to gain 24kg, as that made him eligible for the ‘easy access’ seats in the stadium that are less in demand. Peru’s return to the World Cup after 36 years is not to be taken lightly.

And then there are the sombreros and Aztec-inspired clothing from the Mexicans, the shimmering yellow jersey of Colombia, and the big-bearded Icelandic fans who are made to perform the Viking Clap on the street even when buying a sandwich. There is also the name Messi plastered on anything and everything Argentinians carry. Even those who do not seem to associate their fortunes with Argentina are seen sporting the blue-and-white kit of Messi, arguably football’s biggest star.

However, one group of fans has been uncharacteristically mute. Only about 32,000 tickets were bought by fans in England as fears of racism were played up by the British media. A black member of the World Cup squad, Danny Rose, asked his parents to stay home. The ugly fights between Russian and English fans at the UEFA Euro in France two years ago are still fresh in memory.

The World Cup moves on, shading unpleasantness out of view. The post-Soviet experience for many Russians is defined by the freedom to travel, and the World Cup has put them in a position to play host to those who are exercising that freedom. In a ‘managed democracy’, short-term benefits are handed out to people who can afford to be part of this show. But opportunities arise to not let the World Cup become a driver of its own narrative.

The Iranian women who attended a football match for the first time ever in Saint Petersburg on July 15, suggested an alternative to the clichéd flag-waving and chanting by carrying banners that urged the Iranian state to allow women back home the same privileges. Their powerful political statement, urging the Hassan Rouhani regime to let women enter football stadiums in Iran, showed that the World Cup need not exist in a bubble.

Priyansh is a Delhi-based independent sports writer

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Published on June 22, 2018
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