Sunday 20 January 2019

Comment: Don't allow the World Cup smokescreen to hide what really matters

Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Reuters)
Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Reuters)

Jonathan Liew

Early on Wednesday morning, just a few hours after the villagers of Khan al-Ahmar had gathered in the schoolyard to watch England playing Colombia, the Israeli bulldozers moved in. Soldiers scuffled with activists and local residents; 11 arrests were made.

For years, Israel has been seeking to raze the West Bank village and clear out the 180 Bedouin living there, so that it can extend its policy of settlement-building. Its Supreme Court approved the demolition in May, over the protests of the United Nations, the European Union and the pro-Israel American lobby group J Street. Now, with the world’s eyes on Russia, it made its move.

Here’s another one you may have missed: last week, the UK government admitted that the number of privately-owned tower blocks still fitted with the deadly cladding that fuelled the Grenfell Tower fire was more than double previously thought. Tens of thousands of tenants are still living in buildings wrapped in highly flammable material. Unfortunately, the government released its statement just before England kicked off against Belgium, and so it’s just about possible people may not have seen it. Annoying.

Of course, when it comes to using global sporting spectacles as political cover, nobody does it like the Russians. Ten years on from its invasion of Georgia, propitiously timed to coincide with the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government chose the occasion of its resounding 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia on the opening night of the World Cup 2018 to quietly roll out its new pension reforms, with the age of retirement increasing by eight years for women and five years for men.

It was always going to prove a deeply unpopular move amongst ordinary Russians, but by and large it has been swept up in a tide of World Cup patriotism, with the organisation of the tournament running largely to plan and Russia surging into the quarter-finals.

And while Vladimir Putin and the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman were exchanging pleasantries at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Saudi Arabia were launching their own manoeuvres a few thousand miles away. A Saudi-backed military coalition attacked the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah in Yemen as part of the country’s long-running civil war. The port is the primary source of aid for Yemen’s 28 million citizens, and aid agencies have warned that the Saudi assault has the potential to create a massive humanitarian crisis in what is already one of the poorest nations in the region.

Still, at least the football’s been good, eh? I’m writing these words from Kazan, a few hours before Brazil are due to take on Belgium in a mouthwatering quarter-final clash, and from my deeply privileged vantage point it’s tempting to conclude that all is well with the world. To lose ourselves in the game’s rich pageant, to surrender to the happy vortex of brilliant footballers and gripping games and street parties and ‘It’s Coming Home’ memes. To tell ourselves that for all the planet's ills, for one month every four years it can be a genuinely uplifting place.

Which is fine, of course; but at the same time, that’s what some people are relying on. Was it purely coincidence, for example, that around the same time Eric Dier was slotting home his winning penalty in Moscow in front of a television audience of 24 million, Vote Leave decided to leak the findings of an Electoral Commission inquiry into its funding of the European Union referendum campaign, which claimed that it had broken the law by exceeding its spending limit and inaccurately reporting expenditure?

Perhaps it was banking on the fact that people were so transfixed by the football that they would fail to notice it had fiddled a referendum that would reshape the landscape of the country for years to come. Or perhaps that’s just the cynic in me.

Of course, nobody’s trying to poop your World Cup party here. Watch the football, get the pizzas in, enjoy yourselves. The World Cup is often characterised as a form of extreme escapism, a global carnival, one of those rare occasions when everyone comes together in celebration. But just be aware that there are people out there who are counting on your distraction, who are prepared to use the feats of Neymar and Jordan Pickford as a handy smokescreen to do whatever they want.

From the West Bank to west London, our duty as global citizens doesn’t end when the game starts. In a way, it’s when we need to be more vigilant than ever.

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