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The White Elephant at the World Cup

Wednesday 13th June 2018

Football is different things to various types of fans.

It can be entertainment or a reason to entertain yourself. You can live and die by the success and failure of your club, second-guessing tactics and signings. Or you can dress up in vivid colours, wigs and paints to party in the stands. You can sing when you’re winning or dance to the drumbeat no matter what happens on the pitch. Unless it’s a 7-1 shellacking in your sacred temple at Germany’s hand. Then, the music stops and your feet aren’t feeling so happy as they were an hour-and-a-half before.

Unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. The beautiful game is universal, which means it can also be ugly. Club or country can be the tribe to which you belong and in whose name you will wage bitter war against the rest of the world.

Bigotry thrives in and around stadiums. Homophobia. Racism. Nationalism. Hooliganism. They exist in every country at every level. Referees have been beaten in London. One Brazilian official stabbed a player to death and was beheaded by fans for his trouble. Football was stopped in Uruguay last year due to fan violence. Serbian ultras journeyed to Italy to sabotage their own team during Euro 2012 qualifiers because they disagreed with how their federation was running the team. The football is secondary. It isn’t entertainment so much as symbolism. It’s about identity and everyone wants to be known as the alpha prime.

Most countries are trying to eliminate the hate and violence surrounding the game. Nevertheless, others tolerate, even encourage it. Welcome to Russia. Enter at your own risk.

At the 2016 Euros, violence broke out in Marseilles between Russian and English ‘fans’. Well-organised and prepared, the Russians made short work of the Brits. On Twitter, Russia’s sports minister congratulated his countryman on a “good job” and urged them to “keep it up.”

That they had a strategy and executed it shocked many, but football is a microcosm of life. The scope of Moscow’s Olympic doping program barely scratched the surface when it comes to the depths and distances Russia will go to further its interests. Suspicion and resentment taint this World Cup following an assassination attempt against a Soviet dissident and his daughter in London, in which a nerve gas was used in a public space. Beside that, the goings-on in the stands during Russian Premier League and national team matches is child's play.

In March, black players on the French national team, including Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, were subjected to racial taunts during a game in the shining new Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg that will host several contests including one semifinal and the third-place match. As part of its so-called zero-tolerance policy against racism, FIFA fined the Russian Football Union £22,000. Kick It Out boss Lord Ousely termed the punishment “pitiful.” Impotent would have been a better word. Or pocket change.

Sam Borden, an ESPN The Magazine reporter, recently embedded himself with Russian hooligans. Gangs from various clubs have heard the message that their antics won’t be welcome out in the open during the tournament. So, they’ve taken to meeting in the woods to battle out their differences. At one point in the process, Borden confessed to a group that he had never punched another person in his life. One ultra cocked his head to the side and remarked, “You should try it.”

Personally, I have punched a few people in my life, and I’ve been punched. Sometimes it felt good. Other times, it was painful. In most cases, it was complete idiocy. In one or two, however, it was absolutely the right thing to do, even when I came out the worst.

I’m under no illusions about violence. It is part of our nature. There is a time and place for it. Not very often, but there are times when a violent response is both effective and warranted. That said, I see no reason for any race, gender, nationality, or other demographic to assert itself over the rest.

Everyone at one point in their lives has said or agreed with someone who has that something they love “will never be the same.” The most oft-repeated validation of their actions, be it from Brexiters, other alt-right or populist movements, white supremacists, Russians, Orthodox Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Turks, Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, whoever, is preservation. Violence is committed to preserve a heritage, a way of life, to prevent change.

But there’s an oft-overlooked fact about preserving a way of life. Doing so is not at all unlike preserving meats, fruits and vegetables, as my Canadian grandmother used every fall. When you separate something from the outside world, just as she covered foodstuffs in a protective sauce before sealing them in an airtight jar, that which you preserve is already dead.

Life changes because it must continue breathing. When we use violence to prevent that change we preserve nothing. We just suffocate, sour and rot. It is what is happening to politics now in Russia but also in the UK, America and elsewhere.

Business, too. Preserving profit is why the US withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, new oil and gas pipelines continue to be built, and everyone thinks Elon Musk is a nutjob for promoting self-driving electric cars and space travel.

Sadly, it doesn’t matter whether this World Cup concludes without any public violence. Because some things will always remain the same. In the woods around Moscow and other venues, blood will be spilled. When the tournament is complete and normal life resumes, the banners, chants and thrown bananas will reappear in stadia as though they had never left. Doing injury to others is the only way too many can measure their own strength.

Meanwhile, people and governments elsewhere will continue to practice hatred and evil while Putinville pretends to be on its best behaviour. There is no point in condemning Russia for its acts. We all live in glass houses. We all throw stones. Change begins at home.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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