Sport World Cup 2018

Saturday 24 August 2019

Russians execute winning start in totalitarian derby to keep Putin smiling


Russia's Aleksandr Golovin celebrates scoring his side's fifth goal with team mates. Photo: Grigory Dukor/Reuters
Russia's Aleksandr Golovin celebrates scoring his side's fifth goal with team mates. Photo: Grigory Dukor/Reuters

The Couch: Tommy Conlon

We can only assume that the condemned men did not eat a hearty breakfast. The national football team of the Russian Federation was under the kind of pressure that would loosen the bowels of a chronically constipated elephant.

Putin had sent down word from the Kremlin: failure was not an option. The president had brought the circus to town. The world would be watching. He would not tolerate his own team falling over its own feet like a clown in size 20 red shoes. Because then the world would be laughing. And as Charlie Chaplin famously reassured us in his 1940 film The Great Dictator, this particular genus of world leader cannot abide being laughed at.

Andrei Kanchelskis, the former Dynamo Kyiv and Manchester United player, had described the current outfit as "the worst Russian team I have seen in my life". But this was irrelevant. They would have to perform, no matter how bad they were. They would have to qualify out of their group as a bare minimum. It was "not even up for discussion," declared the minister for sport.

So when Putin took his place for the opening ceremony of World Cup 2018 at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last Thursday, it was only natural to hope that he would end up with a cream cake in his face, courtesy of a humiliating defeat in the first game.

As Hitler found out when Jesse Owens single-handedly demolished his Aryan fantasies in Berlin, the laws of sporting competition can be governed by nobody. They are beyond the control of presiding psychopaths who can otherwise control everything. There was one German in the 1936 100m Olympic final. The Austrian madman couldn't make him run faster than Owens. The triumph of the will could not triumph against the stopwatch.

But the hope that the sporting gods would inflict abundant scorn on Putin last Thursday was complicated by the other country partaking in this tin-pot tableau. Joining him in the VIP box was the crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, there to see his own team perform on this prestige occasion.

When both groups of players stood to attention for the national anthems, one couldn't but sense that they were mere pawns of their respective governments, playthings in some sort of geopolitical game being orchestrated by the pair of goons in the padded seats. There was a fascistic bang off the whole charade. This was the totalitarian derby, a bunfight between war criminals, two Neros fiddling while civil rights burned in their backyards.

Therefore those who hate to see sport being hijacked by political gangsters were caught between a rock and a hard place on Thursday. The best one could hope for was a 0-0 draw of such tedium that neither of these loathsome ghouls would get any sort of ego trip out of it; a big, fat anti-climax all round, ideally with boos ringing in their ears at the final whistle.

Lest we were in any doubt that this was football as propaganda, the Russian television director kept cutting from the field of play to Putin and his ongoing bromance with the crown prince in the VIP suite. Perhaps said TV director was in fact subversively reminding us that two men showing similar displays of public affection in Saudi, or elsewhere in Russia, wouldn't be around long before seeing the inside of a jail cell.

Awkwardly enough, there was another party present at this hangman's soirée. The third wheel on this ghastly date, the gooseberry in the middle, was Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president. He might as well have been the waiter bringing them their drinks. Putin and the prince had eyes only for each other. They leaned across him repeatedly to exchange conversation, perhaps swapping tips on the merits of beheading people, or just shooting them.

"Cosy little chat," observed Ronnie Whelan on commentary for RTé as the cameras picked up on another tête-à-tête. "Not watching the game." Pause. "Prawn sandwich brigade." George Hamilton beside him guffawed. In the end it was all you could do.

Meanwhile, another broadcaster, the British journalist James O'Brien, was tweeting his own mordant observations as the match progressed. "I wish Saudi Arabia was as shit at bombing Yemeni civilians as they are at football."

It was no wonder that Infantino looked decidedly uneasy as the goals started raining in on the hapless Saudis. Mohammed bin Salman would be used to getting his own way. FIFA's chief blazer was walking a diplomatic tightrope, nervously feigning sympathy with the gimp on his right whilst simultaneously feigning joy with the gimp on his left.

The Saudi royal appeared to take the first few goals with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders. By the time the fifth went in he was staring straight ahead with a stony expression. Even Putin was starting to look distinctly uncomfortable. He wanted Russia to win. He demanded that they win and his players got out of prison, as it were, by performing way beyond expectations.

But five goals? This was flirting dangerously with the delicate balance of power between friendly tyrants. We imagine he'd have settled for two or three, in order to help the prince save face. Which perhaps goes to show that even when you win in sport, you still can't control everything. It still retains a sovereign streak, no matter who is trying to pull its strings.

On Tuesday, Russia will play Egypt; the following Monday, Uruguay. Vladimir's epic vanity project is up and running. If the Motherland cannot conquer the world anymore, the World Cup will have to do.

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