As someone who has no interest in football, even I have to admit this World Cup has been positive and, dare I say, uplifting.
The lack of violence, hooliganism and racism (bar one incident at the Russia-Uruguay match) has been a relief. We were all bracing ourselves for the worst and there were stark warnings issued to England fans. Defender Danny Rose even warned his own family not to follow him for fear of racial abuse.
But, mercifully, it hasn’t panned out that way. There has been a genuine feel-good factor to the tournament, which has seen fans unite from different cultures to celebrate their passion. Commentators have been praising Russia and saying this could herald a new golden era for the country and its tourism.
So, forget the football, Vladimir Putin has won the World Cup PR war. But we all seem to have forgotten that Russia went into this tournament being the bad boy of international relations.
Let’s remind ourselves of the charge sheet: annexing Crimea; meddling in foreign elections; assassinating state enemies on foreign soil; and, let’s not forget, the appalling human rights record in Russia, where gay people are persecuted, human rights activists are locked up, political opponents are crushed, and journalists are killed.
Amnesty International published a list of 11 human rights defenders from each of the 11 regions hosting games who have been arrested, attacked, smeared and harassed by the authorities for campaigning on environmental issues, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, or exposing police brutality and corruption. Amnesty have called these 11 “Team Brave” and it’s a powerful campaign.
Such was the frostiness in British-Russian relations following the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury that it resulted in both countries expelling diplomats and talk of a new Cold War. The British Government and the Royal Family have not travelled to the tournament.
Tough sanctions have been imposed by the US and EU, which restrict doing business with Russian banking, financial and energy sectors and they look set to stay. Yet Russia has deftly used the platform which the World Cup gave it to its advantage. Putin knew that all eyes would be on his vast country and spent a record $13 billion upgrading most of the host cities, which hadn’t seen much investment since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This is a man not opposed to the odd photocall in his time – we all sniggered at the bare-chested horse-riding – and he knows the power of the pictures and public relations.
This was an opportunity to try and clean up his country’s tarnished reputation and he’s seizing it.
The absence of violence and hooliganism is definitely a sign that the Kremlin has clamped down on this. They are pretty well connected with the Russian underworld and the complex network of gangs and criminality. It’s clear a message went out. Lay off the knee-capping or it’ll be you getting knee-capped.
The authorities have also relaxed their crackdown on LGBTQ rights for the tournament. Rainbow flags are allowed to be flown around the stadiums in the host cities, but just before the football began, local authorities in Chechnya carried out a large-scale anti-gay purge, rounding up and torturing dozens of men because of their presumed homosexuality.
Yet when British activist Peter Tatchell turned up to protest about gay rights at the start of the competition, he was treated (thankfully) with uncharacteristic leniency by the authorities who, in ordinary times, would have been far more brutal.
Big international sporting events can be powerful platforms for political leaders – especially in this new age of dictatorial strong men. Kim Jong-un became the star of the Winter Olympics and he didn’t even need to turn up on ice skates.
He sent his sister – L’il Kim – to South Korea and the entire event became about how he was repairing relations between North and South ahead of meeting Donald Trump.
It would not surprise me in the slightest if Putin threw a metaphorical hand grenade into international relations and invited Trump, China’s Xi Jinping and even Kim or Syria’s Bashar Assad to the final. Stranger things have happened and that would be a two-fingers up to the EU, Nato and all the established Western geo-political orthodoxies that are finding themselves imperilled by this new rising world order in the East.
Remember, what Putin and the Russians do brilliantly is disrupt and confuse. Putin may an international villain, but he is also surprisingly busy around the world because he is ruthlessly strategic and has fingers in many pies.
A massive new gas link from Russia to supply Germany – Nord Stream 2 – is in the pipeline (if you pardon the pun) which strengthens Putin’s position now and after Merkel goes.
Russia is also very close to Iran and Turkey and this unusual triple alliance could reshape the Middle East. Putin’s international stock is rising in all kinds of under-reported but hugely powerful ways. It’s not often I agree with our foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, but I think he may have been onto something when he said that Vladimir Putin would revel in the World Cup in the same way Adolf Hitler did in 1936, when the Olympic Games were held in Berlin.
While English fans may be safe and have been having a good time, there’s more to what’s going on than a festival of football. Don’t let the beautiful game mask an uglier truth.