Ugliness in the Beautiful Game
Soccer is often hailed as the beautiful game. And it is, arguably no more so than during the World Cup. Nations get the chance to showcase their culture, their geography, their passion. The entire world is on pause for an entire month, watching as heroes and villains are made and stars are born. Barriers are broken; everyone is united, swept together in a celebration of excellence and fervor. Every loss, every victory, can provoke unmatched heartbreak or exultation. It’s a time like no other.
But just because a sport is beautiful does not mean we can ignore its problems. Just because athletics are pure does not mean their governing bodies are. And just because it’s the World Cup does not mean we need to overlook a larger political context. And this year, it is more important than ever that we do not.
For the first time ever, Russia is hosting the World Cup. The presence of dictator Vladimir Putin aside — which, unfortunately, most of us have all but accepted at this point — it is an exceedingly bold move for not only the international community but the country itself. Russia hosted the most expensive Olympics ever (winter or summer) just four years ago in Sochi, hastily papering over venues and residences that were falling apart even before the torch went out. Much of the $51 billion intended for preparations disappeared, most likely into Switzerland, Panama, and the Cayman islands.
Russia is not a country with money to spare. Those who can afford it buy English soccer teams and Miami condos, and the nation’s GDP is bolstered by oil and gas revenue — but don’t be fooled. Most Russians are living on less than $500 a month. For these families, the World Cup is nothing but a colorful distraction while the government continues to do what they’ve always done: privatize the profits and nationalize the costs.
The 2018 World Cup will be Sochi on steroids. Stadium readiness has been a struggle despite the use of prison labor and Central Asian and North Korean immigrants (working in conditions that have already resulted in dozens of deaths). The government is actively slaughtering stray dogs in an effort to clean the streets. Corporate and organizational corruption is rampant — Russia has not only already been forgiven for the worst doping scandal in history, but placed in the weakest World Cup group as well.
The World Cup is a problem every year, and nobody is doing anything about it. Corporations ran Brazil’s economy into the ground. Russia is a logistical disaster. Numerous reports of abuse and deaths are coming out of Qatar (scheduled to host the 2022 World Cup).
This isn’t to say that anyone needs to boycott the event. I certainly won’t be; it’s too much of a draw. But it is to say that nobody should feel totally comfortable watching it. In an era defined by human rights abuses, economic catastrophe, and widespread corruption, it is important not to normalize the wrong things.
Enjoy the World Cup, but continue fighting for something better.
Originally published 6/4/18.