Fair play the goal as World Cup kicks off
Whether on the pitch or off it, it’s important that the eagerly awaited soccer spectacle hosted by Russia is remembered for all the right reasons
After days of geopolitical summitry from the G7 to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to the Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore, sport could provide light relief from the world of trade wars and nuclear proliferation.
The Fifa World Cup finals, which kick off tonight at 11pm Hong Kong time, could not be better timed. The eyes of hundreds of millions will turn to Russia as the action begins with the hosts playing Saudi Arabia in the opening group match.
Chinese soccer fans and tourists will be strongly represented among visitors to the neighbouring country. Sadly, China’s soccer players will not. They are missing from the 32 finalists, who include five from the Asian region.
The wish of President Xi Jinping for China to qualify for another World Cup after its sole appearance in 2002, let alone to host the finals, and win them within 30 years, remains unfulfilled.
The huge investment in the development of the game to realise these goals is yet to pay dividends on the pitch. Russia has been preparing for this day since 2010 when Fifa awarded it the right to stage the 2018 finals. President Vladimir Putin promised on that occasion racism would not be a problem.
Then at the 2016 Euro finals in France, hundreds of Russian hooligans attacked England supporters. Visiting journalists have also reported racist chanting at black players from spectators.
Anti-racism activists have not ruled out a scenario where an African World Cup team will walk off the pitch in the face of racist jeers and taunts.
Certainly, Putin apparently felt strong action against hooliganism was necessary before kick-off, and reports from Moscow say hundreds have been rounded up or warned to ensure unsavoury incidents do not tarnish the president’s showpiece.
Incidents that marred the last World Cup in Brazil, such as the suspension of a player for biting an opponent, theatrical feigning of injury and abuse of referees, gave cause to reflect on the description of soccer as “the beautiful game”.
Corruption scandals in Fifa haven’t helped. This is the sport’s chance to redeem itself. Racism would dash that hope. Regardless, World Cup fever is here. It will keep fans up late and in the early hours. We trust that within reason, bosses will turn a blind eye to an outbreak of heavy eyelids and bloodshot eyes.