Fifa World Cup 2018 opening ceremony: Vladimir Putin puts on a shameful party for himself in Russia
Tournament in Russia is normalising the behaviour of an autocrat while the world watches on and cheers
It didn’t take long, just 12 minutes to be precise, for the World Cup to descend into farce.
I’m not talking about Robbie Williams’ kick-off concert before the opening game at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, though that was toe-curling enough.
I’m referring to the image beamed around the world to millions, of Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Vladimir Putin shrugging their shoulders and sticking their hands out, in a mock apologetic gesture, to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, after Yury Gazinsky scored the first goal of the 2018 World Cup for Russia against Saudi Arabia.
It looked cringingly rehearsed – television cameras normalising two men accused of human rights abuses as just a couple of lads bantering about a football match, with the head of world football’s governing body playing along. Pass the sick bag.
Fifa gladly gave Vlad the Lad his wish, a world stage to show off Russia and pretend it isn’t an autocratic regime where anti-Putin critics are jailed and murdered, where boots are put to the throat of democracy as the president awards himself a fifth term in a sham election.
“Love for football unites the entire world in one team, regardless of people’s language or ideology,” Putin said to thunderous applause from the capacity crowd.
It was a fawning load of hot air from a man who has done more than most to ensure the world is not united.
Not content with meddling in the free elections of the United States and European nations, Putin is a puppet master pulling at the strings of global conflict.
His intervention in Crimea got Russia expelled from the G8, while the US intelligence community has determined that Russia will try once again to interfere in the 2018 US midterm elections.
“In our country, football is not just a popular sport, not just the most beautiful sport – people here truly love it,” said Putin, after British pop star Williams sang Let Me Entertain You.
It’s a theme Putin wants to project to the world – “hey, look at Russia, we’re not so bad like everyone says we are. We like football too”.
And the world got to see just how much Russia likes football, as their national side hammered five goals past a hapless Saudi Arabia to rapturous cheers.
Russia had failed to win a game all year, but got to look mighty powerful swatting aside an awful team from a country it reportedly signed a US$3 billion arms deal with last October, two months before the World Cup draw was made.
And the crown prince got to clap along as Saudi Arabia were placed in a prestigious slot on the world stage, too. Everybody wins.
Then there was the photo opportunity Putin gave himself at half-time, going around shaking the hands of world leaders and dignitaries in the hospitality area.
A nice song and dance, but shame on Fifa for enabling this farce. Cosying up to tyrants is what Fifa does best.
No matter that UK intelligence determined Russia had tried to murder 66-year-old Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer and British spy who acted as a double agent, and his daughter Yulia, 33, with a Soviet-developed nerve agent on British soil in March.
Nor should we be concerned, supposedly, that Ukraine officials said they rumbled a Kremlin plot to murder anti-Putin journalist Arkady Babchenko, who fled Russia in fear for his life, just a few weeks out from the World Cup.
Fifa is also complicit in the jailing of any fans travelling to Russia who do not share Putin’s views.
Just hours before kick-off, British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was arrested in Moscow for holding a one-man protest against Russia’s record on LGBT rights.
He is set to appear in court on June 26, charged with violating Federal Law 54 and Presidential Decree 202, which prohibit all protests near the Kremlin and during the World Cup.
Seems a bit at odds with Fifa’s much-publicised new approach to human rights. The organisation committed to respecting “all internationally recognised human rights” in a 2017 policy, establishing a Human Rights Advisory Board following criticism over labour exploitation documented by Amnesty International on stadium construction sites in Russia and Qatar, which was awarded the 2022 World Cup.
But the World Cup is just a party, right? We should be focusing on the pitch, not the politics!
So Fifa sits idly by while Russia concocts sycophantic conspiracy theories about how the west is pulling off ‘false flag’ operations and ‘Russophobic propaganda’ to denigrate Russia and turn sentiment against it.
It’s absurd and ludicrous, and frankly embarrassing that a dictatorship gets to host a sporting party that is meant to promote equality and diversity.
Fifa can wheel out its usual drivel about ‘the beautiful game’ – but you can’t spin that yarn when you don’t stand up to any of this.
Putin’s image makeover, from tyrant into respected world leader, is well under way, all thanks to Fifa.