Russia 2018: How world class football can 'normailse' unacceptable politics
When a newly-emboldened Russian team walk out to meet Croatia at the Fisht Olympic Stadium near Sochi this Saturday evening both teams will carry the invisible burden of international politics out onto the pitch.
As this grand sporting jamboree tumbles ever on with all its joyful unpredictability and moments of crazy brilliance, it's easy to forget the tense political atmosphere lurking around the edges of the games.
It is after all, not so long ago that Boris Johnson compared Vladamir Putin's World Cup 2018 to Hitler's Munich Olympics; and in March, as Sergei Skripal and his daughter lay on life support in Salisbury District Hospital, there was serious talk of the England team boycotting the whole tournament.
On Saturday all of this, plus the ghosts of the Cold War and the older wraiths of Imperial Russian hegemony in the Balkans will be out there on the turf with the players.
Croatia is in Nato and the EU. It looks to the West, and was involved in the tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats that took place in solidarity with the UK after the Skripal poisoning.
Meanwhile, Russia seems keen to reassert its control over the region by almost any means necessary.
“Russia is still very active in the Balkans,” says Dr Dafydd Mills Daniel, an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) New Generation Thinker, and McDonald Lecturer in Christian ethics, Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford.
“It is suspected of efforts to destabilise various states and stir up nationalism, and may even have been involved in a coup attempt in Montenegro. And that's before we mention the annexation of Crimea, or the fact Russia – alongside Serbia – refuse to recognise Kosovo.”
Some of tensions have already emerged on the pitch.
Fifa has opened disciplinary proceedings against Switzerland's Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqirir after they celebrated their goals during a 2-1 win over Serbia in Kaliningrad with an Albanian nationalist hand gesture to reflect their Kosovan heritage and – it's widely believed – enrage Serbian nationalists.
After the match the Serbian coach seemed to suggest the referee should be taken in front of the War Crimes tribunal at the Hague.
But despite all this, perhaps what's more interesting is how little overt politics we've seen over the last few weeks, given the tensions evident during the build up to World Cup 2018.
“One of the most interesting things about this tournament is how politics has been 'normalised' by sport,” says Daniel. “The idea that sport is not just for the good, but is itself an ultimate good, seems stronger; that football transcends politics and is an end in itself.
“The Russia v Croatia game could be surrounded by Cold War rhetoric, but it's not.”
Partly this is about money: whatever happens, sport has to happen.
Modern football is an incredibly valuable commodity with powerful vested interests that make sure it passes off without a fuss so it can be consumed around the world – along with its sponsor's products.
“You could argue that this 'normalisation' of an unacceptable political situation – LGBT and wider human rights abuses in Russia, for example – is wrong and dangerous,” says Daniel.
“Lack of official discussion of the situation creates a space for more extreme views to flourish, and that's also dangerous.
“But there's also a sense that sport creates a safe space for political tensions to be worked through; that, to adapt George Orwell, who had a more negative view of international sport, ‘it's war minus the shooting’ and it's better that players are kicking each other's shins instead of shooting each other.”
One of the particularly interesting aspects of the modern fandom evident at World Cup 2018 seems to be the focus on the 'love of the game' and what unites fans, rather than what separates them.
“This is why the reaction to [Brazilian footballer] Neymar's theatrics was so important,” says Daniel. “People around the world seemed united in their condemnation and wanted to talk about the common virtues of sportsmanship.”
In many ways, while it is important to draw attention to the glossing-over of tensions and political problems, there may be long-term benefits to a tournament that passes off without upset – as long as the Russian police continue to keep a lid on hooligansim.
Russia is an isolated country with a tightly-controlled media. Who knows what the upside of meeting thousands of foreign fans might be in terms of confronting Russian preconceptions of the rest of the world?
And likewise, many of the travelling fans interviewed by the British media seem delighted to have their negative assumptions of Russia and the Russians challenged as they move around the country.
“Of course all of this is only happening because of money,” says Daniel. “And while it's important to remember that, there's also an argument that we should be pragmatic, and not be obsessed with the way good things happen, so long as they do happen."
“We could put up the Iron Curtain. We could return to Cold War language. But so far we haven't – and we have no idea yet what will emerge from this World Cup as a result.”