You may have watched. A billion were. It was an unseasonably wet day in Moscow and France had just beaten Croatia in a thrilling World Cup final by many goals.
On that Sunday in July four years ago, high-ranking dignitaries gathered on the pitch to present their medals to the defeated and victorious teams. When it comes to sporting moments, there are no bigger ones on the planet. If you want to make a political gesture, this is the time.
Wladimir Putinmere President of Russia and not yet a fully qualified war criminal, didn’t squander it.
During the ceremony, an aide held Putin dry with an umbrella from the incessant downpour while Presidents Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of Croatia and Emmanuel Macronfrom France, stood next to him and got soaked.
Both leaders maintained their dignity and even pretended not to notice. But they did. How could they not? A confused world did too. Which, of course, was the dictator’s only point. humiliate. The notion that sports and politics are separate entities that exist in parallel universes has persisted despite apparent evidence to the contrary.
There are many examples. The Jesse Owens moment at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, the Black Power salute in Mexico in 1968 or, much closer, the Irish rugby team’s nefarious tour of South Africa in 1981. The apartheid regime knew that a visit to Ireland was possible could be used to legitimize at a time of international condemnation. Sportswashing, even though it wasn’t called that at the time.
At first glance, Russia used the 2018 World Cup as a vehicle to present itself as a progressive, efficient state. But the subtext was that it was in stark contrast to Western values, which Putin jealously despises. The image of him aloof, grinning and dry as the French President endured the deluge had a strong symbolic note.
Such abuse of sport is now all too common. Just last month, Putin’s bagman Roman Abramovich saw his unsavory role at Chelsea FC unravel.
Then there’s Manchester City and new contenders Newcastle United, both largely funded by states with appalling human rights records. Sports washing doesn’t remove all stains, but it certainly helps.
If the last World Cup was an eye-opener for the observant, the one to come – being played off-season around Christmas – is surely an affront to the decency in all of us.
The ugly game is a brilliant book by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert on how Qatar won this tournament. Released in 2015, it’s a taste of what followed.
Some national teams, or at least their aware players, are beginning to question the oil state’s shocking abuses of migrant workers.
With the draw for the tournament just completed, those of us who choose to watch at Christmas will have to accept that we are partly to blame. They can wash their dirty laundry only if we play the game. Ugly is right.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/sportswashing-is-turning-the-once-beautiful-game-ugly-41520918.html Sportswashing makes the once beautiful game ugly