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High Stakes Politics at World Cup 2018 Russia: How Global Politics Defiantly Responded To FIFA’s “Football and Politics Don’t Mix” Plea With A Firm Middle Finger

On the eve of the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia, FIFA top dogs and representatives from its 200 plus member states national football associations met in Moscow, on June 13, for one last piece of business. The key business of the 68th FIFA Congress was a vote on who between Morocco, and a joint Canada, Mexico, USA bid would host the World Cup 2026. But, what would a party be without gate crashers?

Official logo FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia

First, An Assurance

Just before the voting begun, an unexpected guest took to the podium to address football honchos. The Independent reports:

And in a barbed reference to his critics, he claimed “sport is beyond politics” and Russia has always had “close ties with those who see the incredible potential for human development” that events like the World Cup present.

U.S Congress Grant funded news organization RFE/RL, contextualized this address by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the 68th FIFA Congress. It, rather in polite speak, pointed out the geopolitical backdrop of World Cup 2018 Russia. The three key reasons why Putin couldn’t retreat, choosing to face his critics head on. They were (text in brackets is how RFE/RL put it) :

  • Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and sponsorship of a Pro-Russia force to the East. (interference in Ukraine),
  • elections hacking by Russia (alleged meddling in elections abroad) and;
  • assassination (nerve-agent poisoning of a former spy and his daughter in England).

Facing such damning realities – not without protest, notable in the British delegation of Football Association chairman Greg Clarke and chief executive Martin Glenn refusing to stand in applause of Putin – RFE/RL reported on the Russian President’s assurance:

“I would like to make special note of FIFA’s adherence to the principle of ‘sports outside of politics,'” Putin said. “Russia has always supported this approach.”

That was the plan. Nah, the rhetoric. Because this is Russia. This is the pinnacle of football. There’s FIFA too and ever-increasing cult-like player appeal. With such an array of devilishly tempting enablers. sport and politics couldn’t help themselves.

The Bed Had Already Been Made

This article “The Dark Side of FIFA” written by Christina Malliris on the innovative Duke University blog founded and edited by Prof Laurent Dubois, Soccer Politics , describes the power of football’s governing body FIFA.

One cannot say that FIFA is merely a body related to soccer: their work necessarily entangles them with international relations and human rights. Apart from being admitted to the UN, “membership of FIFA…is the clearest signal that a country’s status as a nation state has been recognized by the international community.” Due to the popularity of soccer and the buying power of the World Cup, FIFA exerts quite an important influence over the rest of the world. Simply to give a few examples, their acts in South Africa near the end of apartheid contributed to the end of such problematic system; when Nigeria was finally allowed into the league, it signaled a major breakthrough for the national unity of the country

Makes one think: The FIFA congress is much a peer to UN General Assembly, bigger than Davos, when it comes to soft power. Seriously, would Putin have passed on that? Especially when you are host to a World Cup? Lets put it this way: Show me a politician who is oblivious of the power of football, and I’ll show you a leader who doesn’t know how to be popular. Macron, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Alexander Lukashenko,

FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia Affirms Football and Politics, Forever Intertwined

In this 2014 brilliant article on ESPNFC.com by Roy Smith calls out the double speak, irony and paradox of then FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter’s clarion call, “Football should never be used for political messages.” Smith, draws on examples from Silvio Berlusconi, Barcelona, Red Star Belgrade to the politics of hosting a World cup, to hammer his conviction that:

To suggest, as Blatter does, that football and politics do not mix, or that football should not be used to convey political message, is folly. Football is politics, and football is a political message

In an environment fraught with denial of self, FIFA documents such Laws of The Game and FIFA Disciplinary Code risk appearing as relatively soft approaches to political issues in football like race. Because, how does one their disregard by players and coaches at World Cup 2018 Russia?

Moreover, mooted plans for the game such as proposed revamp of the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament, only help to cement football’s status as a geopolitical arena.

As such, World Cup 2018 Russia, has been one of middle fingers. Pop god Robbie Williams got us started on the right note.

Football god Diego Maradona was too fast for TV cameras when he brandished one, celebrating Argentina’s goal in a Group D clash with Nigeria. Mortals, players at the World Cup 2018 Russia, have made a claim for legend status – at least in the eyes of those whose political message they carried by making a point to be captured by the cameras.

Switzerland

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: Switzerland Vs Serbia

Cast: Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri

Political Cause: Sid Lowe of The Guardian reports,

Xhaka and Shaqiri, who are of Albanian-Kosovan heritage but were raised in Switzerland, put their hands together to form what looked like a double-headed eagle similar to the one on the Albanian flag. The gestures risked inflaming political tensions in the Balkans among Serbian nationalists and ethnic Albanians. Kosovo is a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense.

Croatia

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: Aftermath of Croatia’s penalty decided quarterfinal victory over hosts Russia.

Cast: An instragram video post featuring Besiktas centre-back Domagoj Vida and his former Dynamo Kiev and international teammate Ognjen Vukojevic.

Political Cause: The relations of Russia and its south westerly neighbor, Ukraine. Russia’s 2010 annexation of Crimea being the most famous. On Vida and Vukojevic’s political message, Artur Petrosyan of ESPNFC.com reports,

Vida said: “Glory to Ukraine.” The phrase has become a slogan for Ukrainian anti-Russian nationalists following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014…. Vukojevic, who now works as a scout at Dynamo but is with his national team for their World Cup campaign, added: “This victory is for Dinamo and Ukraine.”

Vukojevic got fined by FIFA and fired by Ukraine. Over 158,000 Ukriane fans flooded FIFA’s Facebook Page expressing their displeasure over FIFA’s actions. Then, following Croatia’s victory in the semi-final, where Vida was booed by the Russian crowd every time he touched the ball, and ahead of the final in Moscow, Vida apologized for his comments.

Germany

Picture of Turkey's president with players of Turkish descent in London before the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia

From Left to Right: Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City, Mesut Ozil of Arsenal, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Cenk Tosun of Everton. Image Courtesy

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: Before the tournament and during a protracted case of bargaining in Kubler-Ross grief cycle by the DFB general manager.

Cast: Mesut Ozil, Ikalay Gundagon, German Football Association general manager Oliver Bierhoff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Political cause: Again, another skirmish between neighbors. Both players are of Turkish heritage. Who knew a picture could cause so much trouble? The German Chancellor and President sought to set the record right. Gundogan apologised, Ozil did not. The general manger in a case of a bad cook blaming the pots and pans, regretted on having the later part of the German contigent at the World Cup. The President of the German National Association, DFB, sought answers on and off the pitch.

Turkey and Germany relations have been especially strained after the failed attempted coup against Erdogan roughly two years before the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia. A wide-ranging cast of issues from EU tensions to artistic expression have defied diplomatic  efforts at reseting relations.

Iran

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: Entire World Cup campaign by Iran who exited at the group stage.

Cast: Entire team.

Goalkeepers: Alireza Beyranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo).

Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos).

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatollahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos).

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), Mahdi Taremi (Al Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis).

Political cause: So far, we’ve featured protagonists in the politics-football dynamic at the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia. In the fate of Iran, we find our first victims, or at the very least a bunch caught in the crossfire.

American global sports wear giant NIKE, a few days to the tournament’s start withdrew Iran World Cup squad boots citing long-standing legal obligations and US sanctions on the middle east nation following US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Understandably, Iran coach Carlos Queiroz wasn’t too impressed:

“It has been a source of inspiration for us,” Queiroz told Sky Sports. “This last comment of Nike was, in my personal view, an unnecessary statement. Everybody is aware about the sanctions.

“They should come out and apologize because this arrogant conduct against 23 boys is absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary.”

Argentina

Poster featuring stars from Argentina National Team thanking them for not honouring a friendly ahead of the FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: The abandoned last, of only two, pre-tournament friendlies scheduled for La Albiceleste. The friendly against Israel. in Jerusalem was the subject of protests that started in Argentina and spread globally. The lead human rights organization, Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) the Palestinian led outfit had this to say about the match’s cancellation.

Mobilizations across the world succeed in thwarting the Israeli government’s use of the match to cover up its war crimes and egregious human rights violations against Palestinians.

Cast: The Argentinean men’s football team, but largely the global appeal of the Lionel Messi brand. The weight on his shoulders to deliver a major trophy for his home country was immense. The Jerusalem debacle before the tournament was the last thing needed.

Political Cause: Apartheid in Palestine and disputed status of Jerusalem as bona-fide Israeli capital.

Egypt

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: Training camp

Cast: Liverpool forward Mohammed Salah and leader of Russian republic Chechnya.

Photo of Mo Slah and Chechnya republic leader in a stadium during camp training by Egypt national team ahead of FIFA World Cup 2018 Russia

Political cause: Egypt’s poor World Cup is at danger of being remembered in terms of an individual accolade. Veteran goalkeeper El Hadary became the oldest player to feature in a World Cup in a dead rubber match against Saudi Arabia, in  which Egypt lost 2-1.

But there is Mo Salah and his wading into the LBGT rights debate. Mo Salah was awarded honorary citizenship in  Russia’s Chechnya republic by leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Alexander Agapov, president of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, was quoted in The Telegraph expressing his disdain:

“It is unacceptable for a footballer who should talk about equality and acceptance of all people in football to receive an award from a man who rejects any equality and acceptance of LGBTi people, who is accused of persecuting gay people and human rights defenders,”

Russia

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: Opening Ceremony

Cast: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his boys. In a list that reads like reunification of the Soviet, Business Standard  lists the leaders that graced the opening ceremony.

The ceremony will also be attended by other heads of state and government, including the President of the Republic of Abkhazia, Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, President of the Republic of Belarus, President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Lebanon, President of the Republic of Moldova, President of the Republic of Panama, President-elect of the Republic of Paraguay, President of the Republic of Rwanda, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, President of the Republic of South Ossetia, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, and President of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

Politics: Affirmation by Putin of the subtle message of Sochi Winter Olympics that the phoenix has risen from the ash. Cold war politics that apparently never ended. Russia’s role in a multi polar world. Good old interest alignments driven by the proven maxim: ” Your enemy’s enemy is your friend”.

France & Belgium

Flashpoint in World Cup 2018 Russia: Semifinal. Build up to the first semi-final of World Cup Russia 2018

Cast: Entire French and Belgian men’s national team.

Politics: The French (the World Cup last standing African team) and Belgian teams inadvertently stirred global debate on immigration politics, stroked African Francophone and Anglophone rivalry. And also served as a showcase of the aftermath of colonial French assimilation policy.

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