The World Cup in Russia is an unmissable diplomatic opportunity – for us and them

Mary Dejevsky
The Independent
Putin is a self-confessed sports nut. There’s a pretty good chance that the Russian authorities will do their utmost to discourage intolerance and avoid confrontation: AFP
Putin is a self-confessed sports nut. There’s a pretty good chance that the Russian authorities will do their utmost to discourage intolerance and avoid confrontation: AFP

One month to go, and the Anglo-Saxons are preparing their football fans for the truly horrible time they are going to have at Russia’s World Cup. Here in the UK, the police have warned England supporters about waving their St George’s flags too enthusiastically on the grounds that it risks coming across as “almost imperialistic”. It could even, said the head of football policing, Mark Roberts, “cause antagonism” – as though antagonism was somehow alien to what tournament football, indeed all sport, is fundamentally about.

Across the pond, a commentator for the Los Angeles Times put the boot in still more ruthlessly. “There’s every chance,” wrote Jules Boykoff, a one-time soccer player-turned-professor, “that the Russia World Cup will display its host country’s ugly side: bigotry, xenophobia and ultra-nationalism.”

Yes, there is a chance. When he chronicles “monkey chants”, homophobia and aggressive chanting, Boykoff is not wrong. Nor are the UK police wrong when they advise fans, before England’s first match in Volgograd (Stalingrad), against festooning Russian war memorials with St George’s flags. Warnings to black and gay fans to be especially careful are – regrettably – not out of order either.

There is bigotry, there is racism and there is homophobia in Russia today, as there is in some other former Eastern bloc countries – and as there used to be, lest we forget, in the UK, including in its football stadiums, not so long ago.

But there is also a chance – a pretty good chance – that the Russian authorities will do their utmost to discourage intolerance and avoid confrontation. If the police in the UK have already, as is reported, stopped more than 1,700 so-called high-risk fans from travelling to Russia for fear they might behave badly, it is more than likely that the Russian authorities are doing the same. Such precautions do not exclude the possibility of untoward events. The absurd idea that Russia’s skinheads in Marseille were somehow under orders from the Kremlin to attack England fans obscured the reality that no orders would have been needed: top-class thugs – as they might see themselves – want to be measured against top-class thugs. That, and nothing to do with the Kremlin – or imperialism or, for that matter, the ever stranger case of the poisoned Skripals – is why Russia and England fans might spoil for a fight.

But it’s also worth looking on the bright side. Russia – and Vladimir Putin, just embarking on what will probably be his last term in office – has an enormous investment in the smooth and civilised running of this World Cup. Putin is a self-confessed sports nut. There was widespread resentment, not just in the Kremlin, about how, in Russia’s view, its Western enemies set out to tarnish its last global show – the 2014 Winter Olympics. Everything, from corruption in the building and unfinished facilities to bizarre loo designs, LGBT rights to doping, was hurled against them. They will want to prevent any repeat.

For the World Cup, the risks, but also the opportunities, are greater. With the matches spread out over 11 cities, far more of Russia will be opened up to foreign visitors than perhaps ever before. Almost half were “closed” cities during the Cold War, meaning that foreigners and many Russians were barred from visiting: Kaliningrad, where England will play their third group-stage match against Belgium; Nizhny Novgorod, where they will play their second match against Panama, Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk), Samara (formerly Kuybyshev) and Kazan.

For many people, the experience of outsiders is thus quite a novelty, limited to the last 25 or so years. Values are conservative and parochial, little touched by modern Western trends. There can still be suspicion of the world beyond. There are parallels – though many on both sides might flinch from the recognition – with parts of the United States.

In terms of infrastructure and creature comforts, Russia’s cities have been transformed since the end of communism. There are passable hotels, more than passable cafes and restaurants, there are well-stocked supermarkets and shopping malls and – what remains the biggest miracle of all – cashpoints, which accept Western bank cards and dispense roubles!

The bigger question is whether Russia’s World Cup cities will be receptive to what for many will be a new experience, whether they will be prepared to drop their ingrained Soviet-era reserve and show a more welcoming face. Will people be friendly, curious, hospitable, or sullenly accepting until the intruders go away? My hope, and my betting, is that Russians will rise to the occasion – as the natives of almost every country hosting a major international event have done in the recent past.

Take UEFA Euro 2012. Sadly eclipsed in the UK memory by the London Olympics, this contest was hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine. It was preceded by doom-laden warnings about the risks of racist attacks, general hostility and dire standards of infrastructure, including non-existent roads. Most fans returned with happy memories of an adventure enhanced by welcoming and generous natives delighted to find themselves on an international map. It is just a tragedy that Donetsk, one of that year’s host cities, is now ravaged by war and its new airport, built for the occasion, lies in ruins.

But perhaps the prime example is the World Cup of 2006 in Germany. It is probably fair to say that no one expected anything less than a super-efficient operation, with all venues up to scratch. What few expected, including the hosts, was the warmth with which Germans received the world and the sense of benevolent national pride this inspired. For those visiting Germany for the first time, the 2006 World Cup was a revelation; but it was no less of a revelation for those long-familiar with the country. There was a coming of age of a sort.

It may be too much to hope for a similarly positive mutual discovery when the world – or some of it – sets foot in Russia next month. The suspicions run too deep; the advance warnings have sounded too loud; Russia’s skinheads and England’s flag-wavers may be impossible to keep apart. But perhaps, just perhaps, those visiting Russia for the first time will find a country that is friendlier and more familiar than they thought. And perhaps their Russian hosts can drum up a new sense of national pride that does not imply any threat to anyone else. After all, such giant sporting extravaganzas as the World Cup are not only about what the visitors can learn, but what the natives can learn about themselves.

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