PARIS (AP) It was late 1945, and distrust of Russia was rising. British military planners had recently hatched secret plans, codenamed “Unthinkable,” to attack the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech that foreshadowed the onset of the Cold War was just months away.
But as they stood on the brink of what would become decades of nuclear-tipped enmity, the British and Soviet governments found a patch of common ground in football. Responding to an invite championed by a British government minister who later won the Nobel Peace Prize, Russia flew the newly crowned champions of the Soviet league, Dynamo Moscow, to Britain for a ground-breaking goodwill tour.
Over the course of November, the Soviets thrashed Cardiff City 10-1 , beat Arsenal 4-3 in a fog-bound match at Tottenham’s stadium, White Hart Lane, and drew against Chelsea (3-3) and Glasgow’s Rangers (2-2).
Why reheat this old history now? Because football is again being dragged into the cool, if not yet cold, war brewing between Russian President Vladimir Putin and western governments alarmed by his administration’s behavior.
As in 1945, the same question is being asked: Could football, should football, be employed, in the approach to the June-July World Cup in Russia, as a political tool? Might a month of 32 teams playing each other across 11 Russian cities be exactly what the world needs amid the darkening geo-political gloom? Could squabbling nations take a breather, however fleetingly, around a shared passion for the global game? Or should governments, even teams, stay away, to punish Putin for the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and other outrages his government is accused of and denies?
Certainly, the World Cup won’t be the party that seemed possible when FIFA selected Russia as host in 2010. Then, with Dmitry Medvedev in power after the first two of what has now become four terms as president for Putin, it was tempting to imagine the World Cup as a celebration of the Cold War’s end and to picture football fans partying where Soviet tanks and missiles paraded on Red Square.
But that was before the Russian annexation of Crimea, its military backing for the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and for separatists in eastern Ukraine, before the hacking of western democracies and institutions, and before Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a public bench in the English city of Salisbury on March 4. Britain says they were poisoned with a Soviet-made military-grade nerve agent known as Novichok.
Which all leads to the not unreasonable question: Should countries qualified for the World Cup stay away?
Quick answer for teams: absolutely not. But for governments: maybe.
Some of the countries that are now expelling Russian diplomats, in a remarkable, coordinated show of solidarity with Britain in response to the Skripal poisoning, also have teams heading to Russia. They include France, Germany, Poland, Spain, Denmark, Australia, Sweden, Belgium and Croatia.
To maintain their united front, it maybe would make sense if governments also followed up on the expulsions with a coordinated diplomatic boycott of the World Cup. So far, Iceland has announced that – like Britain – its leaders won’t attend when the Icelandic team, qualified for its first World Cup, takes on Argentina, Nigeria and Croatia in Group D.
Britain’s foreign secretary spoke of Putin ”glorying” in the World Cup like Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Horribly tactless, not least in light of the millions of Russian lives lost in World War II. But outside experts agree that Putin is anticipating that the tournament will send a message, internationally and domestically, that Russia under his leadership is pivotal, capable, respected and can be trusted to put on a show.
Putin is hardly unique on that score. All countries that bid for and spend billions on the World Cup and Olympics hope for good publicity. If foreign governments feel that now is not the right time for them to be part of a Russian PR exercise, that would be another solid argument for them to refuse match tickets from the Kremlin.
By playing in Russia, however, footballers will send a different message, straight to the Russian people. It will be the same message that Dynamo Moscow carried to Britain in 1945: With 22 men, a pitch and a ball, we can come together around a shared passion, regardless of what our governments think of each other.
Dynamo’s tour wasn’t without incident. As well as large and curious crowds, and notable friendly gestures (bicycles were among the gifts the Soviet players took home ), there were problems on and off the field.
Particularly skeptical was author George Orwell, who wrote that the tour generated “fresh animosity on both sides. ” Stanley Rous, the Football Association leader who later headed FIFA, was more positive, telling the Russians: ”You helped us to write another page in the history of football. We’re glad you came.”
Hopefully, come July, ordinary Russians will be saying likewise. In the hardening political atmosphere, 90-minute bursts of respite around football can’t be a bad thing.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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