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Russia vs Saudi Arabia symbolises football's torn morality

Monday 4th June 2018

Football never has nor will ever be a bastion of moral guidance. It is a human endeavour, after all. If you look for your principles amongst the deceitful playacting, testosterone-charged aggression and foul-mouthed rants that characterise the sport, you’ve already lost. FIFA has traditionally traded money for ideology, choosing big pay-days over protecting the game's integrity.

Finding moral nuance in our contemporary state of affairs is a messy, thankless task. At the end of the day, we’re all hypocrites: happy when our team spends millions on a player, wilfully ignoring how such sums could be put to much better use, and righteously indignant when another team or organisation, such as FIFA, involves itself in lavish spending.

When hosting the World Cup costs so much money it is inevitable that a country will suffer when taking on the responsibility. While fans across the globe are shouting how that was surely a bloody yellow, ref, families who need support are neglected.

It happened in Brazil, in South Africa before, and it will happen in both Russia and Qatar. Yet, it’s not really about the money, not in this instance, anyway. It’s about a conflicting clash of idealism and reality. The irony in two countries that are condemned across the world opening the tournament should be lost on no one.

Ideally, we see the World Cup, and football generally, as an escape from reality. Football can incubate fans in harmony for 90 minutes while eleven men kick a ball. But such uniting effects rarely enter into the conversation. Instead, it's all about how awful that player is; how so-and-so should look to sign him; how the referee has been a ‘genuine disgrace’ and so forth.

Vaguely, that’s part of the problem. We are reticent, as a community, to sit down and talk about how football no longer exists in a reality vacuum. As the curtains are raised at the Luzhniki Stadium and Russia and Saudi Arabia walk out into a scene of celebration and jubilation, few will be thinking about the condemnable political outlooks of both countries. The opening ceremony and match will act as a massive PR project for two despotic regimes.

Why does this matter so much? Let’s start with the hosts.

In the last year alone, they have

  • been suspected of poisoning two British citizens 
  • condemned for wide-spread doping at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games;
  • thrown 100 Chechnyans in prison for identifying as homosexual, torturing and in some cases killing them
  • actively oppressed, followed and harassed anti-government journalists, one of whom recently ran a sting in an attempt to catch his would-be assassins.

As well, Russia has an apathetic attitude toward stamping out racism. It fails to properly persecute clubs whose fans engage in racist chanting. How that will affect this tournament remains to be seen.

Saudi Arabia? Take their stance on women. Saudi women must seek permission from a male guardian before making major decisions. They are not allowed to ‘show off their beauty. Until recently, they weren’t even allowed into football stadiums. Add on their heinous human rights record and continual intimidation and persecution of journalists.

On the flip side, if we were to reject countries on the basis of their political and social environments, we’d probably end up with a very anodyne tournament. England wouldn’t get in. Nor would the United States. Bhutan and Nepal in the final, anyone?

The U.K.’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan predicated on false allegations of the harbouring of WMDs, was wrong, killed thousands and jeopardised the whole region to such an extent that conflict still rages everywhere you look.

Boycotting the tournament would be a solitary, even if commendable, act that would solve nothing. Football now exists in a murky and shadowy world where no-one is quite sure where it is located on the morality scale.

A World-Cup that kicks off with two countries that have deplorable human rights records, but will still be treated with the same hype and anticipation, sums up the whole wretched ethical ambivalence in which football currently finds itself.

Michael Jones

Football & political writer with a predictable love of everything retro. English Literature undergraduate at the University of Exeter, looking to pursue a career in sports journalism. For a collection of my work, visit. http://mikejonesmedia.wordpress.com

Follow me on twitter: @jonesmichael_97

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