Bumbling into Russia 2018 OR The One in Which Messi Cancelled on the Pope But Did a Photoshoot with a Goat
In this blog – the second in a series to coincide with the 2018 FIFA World Cup – Jessica Tearney-Pearce considers various incidents leading up to the tournament.
It's an odd thing when thousands of Westerners spend thousands of currency units to flock to a country they would never otherwise visit, where they don't speak the language (potentially cannot even read the alphabet) to watch sport they could see for free on TV at home. However, it's most odd when that country is behaving questionably, yet we all keep bumbling along because it's what happens every four years, and this year the place where it's happening is there.
The 2018 FIFA Football World Cup starts today; but why is the Woolf Institute, an organisation concerned with increasing understanding about religions and the place of religions within societies, allowing me to write so many blogs about football?
Because, as Woolf Institute Founder Director Dr Ed Kessler, Director of Research Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, my fellow PhD scholar Rodrigo Garcia-Velasco Bernal, and I discuss on a podcast to be released on Monday focussing on the Encounter between football and religion; they are inseparable. From claims that football is a religion, to practising religious and superstitious behaviours on the pitch – in 2018 football and religion are interconnected and, sometimes, interdependent. And even though I don't agree that football is a religion in the modern, codified sense, it certainly has – and always has had – comparable jargon, rituals, worship, allegiances, collectivity, crowd behaviour, and potential for violence.
When I planned this series of blogs to coincide with the 2018 FIFA World Cup, this second installment was to focus on the history of sport and religion along with the first rounds of tournament fixtures and the historico-politico-religious contexts to the sporting contests we might witness. That will follow, but I couldn't have known then that in the interim the Argentinian football team would become embroiled in situations related to all three major monotheisms. So I'll begin there.
The least controversial of these embroilments saw the Albiceleste cancel a scheduled audience with Argentinian, and football fan, Pope Francis at the Vatican. One could legitimately infer some kissing of divine feet was planned (although whose we couldn't be sure), but, alas, it was not to be; perhaps because Argentina captain, Barcelona star, and arguably (not arguably) the best football player in the world right now, Lionel Messi, was too busy having his picture taken with goats. Yes, that's right, goats.
More seriously, like all involved in the FIFA tournament, the Argentinian FA organised some friendly matches against teams not going to Russia. For Argentina, one of these was to be against Israel on Saturday the 9th of June. However, in late May, the Palestine Football Association (PFA) urged Argentina to cancel the match. The PFA President, Jibril Rayoub, wrote to the Argentinian FA, the South American Football Confederation, and to FIFA accusing Israel of 'politicising sport'. His ire – or at least the ire which led him to write this letter and be hopeful of a reaction in his favour – was spurred by the game having been moved from its original location (Haifa – a mixed population city in the north of Israel lacking the intensity and contestedness inherent in Jerusalem) not only to Jerusalem, but to the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. This venue was constructed on the site of a pre-1948 Palestinian village, and holding the game there was presented by the PFA as a deliberate provocation, with further insult added as the costs of relocating the game allegedly were accounted for by the Israeli authorities. Rayoub accused Israel of acting 'in contravention of universal values and norms governing the principles of sport' (whatever those might be...).
This all occurred in the context of the recent relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at the behest of US President Donald Trump who claims he identifies Jerusalem as the capital of the country. This led to heightened tensions and a significant increase in violence in recent weeks which has resulted in the deaths of hundreds.
On Tuesday the 5th of June the now not-so-friendly friendly was called off due to the worsening political situation on the ground and following protests in Argentina and Barcelona, as well as threats made to Messi and his family. After the cancellation Rayoub said: 'values, morals, and sport have secured a victory today and a red card was raised to Israel through this cancellation of the game'. A little fanciful perhaps, but, regardless of one's political opinions, it remains unconscionable that this match was to be played with violence at such a height. Rayoub's statement was, however, also ironic as it had been his organisation which called for Palestinians to burn replica shirts and images of Messi. The Israeli Defence Minister also responded predictably and generically, claiming 'it's too bad the soccer knights of Argentina didn't withstand the pressure of the Israel-hating inciters'.
So the cancellation was a response to threats and pressure from both sides, but surely is a decision which should have been taken on humanitarian not political grounds; that is, one should not play what is otherwise a meaningless (or, for that matter, a meaningful) game of football when people are dying just down the street. Full stop.
Rayoub could argue the situation was political because the Israeli authorities made it political by hosting the match somewhere with potential for controversy. This plan ultimately backfired – as the game didn't happen at all and Israel and Palestine have come out of the situation poorly – but it would have been preferable if the Argentinian FA had cancelled the match in the midst of the embassy-related violence rather than waiting for the flag-burning and death threats. The attacks aimed at Messi of course provided a convenient (if horrendous!) cover for the Argentinian FA to make their decision not about 'choosing sides' but rather protecting their player.
Yet, perhaps it was an humanitarian decision after all. Whilst those in charge were posturing, the footballers (yes that's right, the supposedly overpaid and under-appreciative footballers) intervened. Argentina and Juventus striker Gonzalo Higuain said that the Argentinian FA had 'finally done the right thing. Rationale and health come before everything else. We think it's best not to go to Israel', suggesting that the match was cancelled due to the influence of the Argentinian players themselves. Perenially at odds with their own FA for being utterly useless – when they realised that the game had become about politics and not football, the players demanded the fixture be called off. The authorities on all sides had bumbled. Football lost.
If Messi's semi-divine left foot could solve the religio-political situations it unwittingly waded into last week as smoothly as it puts a free kick in the top corner, one feels the world would be much simpler. One hopes that, in that reality, he would spend less time posing for photos with goats.
This chaos involving Argentina happened in the week where the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office released a report emphasising the danger posed to England fans travelling to Russia for the tournament. This slightly infantile video accompanies the more serious FCO advice.
"England fans!" you might say, "surely they're the hooligans?". While this was once true, the report comes in the wake of the increased publicity surrounding Russian 'hooligans' during the 2016 UEFA European Football Championship. These Russians allegedly idealise the behaviour of England football fans from the '80s and '90s and seek not only to replicate it but also target it at England fans. I'm obviously not suggesting that all England fans (which, for clarification, I am not) are now peaceful at all times, but various initiatives during the last c.30 years – from all-seater stadia to regulating who can travel for international games (including a ban on 1200 fans travelling to Russia) – have without doubt curtailed these behaviours to a significant extent.
Yet, on Russian soil this summer, England players and fans in particular may be targeted, and there is also significant concern for anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ and those of ethnic origins and religious adherences not significantly represented ordinarily in Russia. One England player, who has previously suffered serious racism on the pitch, has told his family not to travel to Russia for fear of the abuse they might suffer there. The players have been warned not to react and not to walk off the pitch should they be victim to attacks, and FIFA have also explicitly outlined the steps referees are expected to take should such incidents arise. Finally, the hooligans involved in the violence at the 2016 Euros apparently have been banned from attending.
So there is a façade of pre-emptive action on all fronts and those who know argue that Russia genuinely is concerned about negative PR. It will most likely be fine, the football will take over as it always does and the political discussions will halt for four weeks; but if we're still bumbling in four weeks, well…
Finally (!), to the game itself.
The opening match between footballing lightweights Saudi Arabia and a home team which Russian football expert Sasha Goryunov has claimed is 'actually awful' doesn't promise to sparkle. 'El Gasico', as it's being called, will open the tournament this evening. I'm going to address this farcical fixture – which, if possible, throws the beautiful game into even further disrepute – summarily. The hosts – having gained automatic qualification for the tournament – have done nothing to curb suspicion regarding their honesty or lack thereof by drawing the team officially ranked only a little less bad than themselves (67th to Russia's 70th) as their first opposition.
That this match between the two lowest ranked teams in the tournament was drawn out of the hat at all is a laughable coincidence. I won't boycott this tournament, but I will *not* be watching tonight's game; and I encourage anyone else who gives a shred about human dignity to deny them the viewing figures. Use that c.110 minutes to read, knit, gym, run, or to talk to people you love – let's be honest it's going to be particularly average football anyway.
I really wanted to write about the most interesting first round group from an historico-politico-religious perspective: Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Iran. The Portugal-Spain-Morocco axis is particularly worth noting; much blood and ink has been spilled over their shared history, and it goes without saying that the results of these games will be felt strongly on and off the pitches [EDIT: and it will now be fascinating to see whether losing Lopetegui to Los Blancos the day before the tournament began weakens or strengthens the Spanish campaign].
I was also going to explain who I think will win..., but that will have to wait for the next installment (which conveniently covers me for any unexpected epic collapse and exit in the group stage).
Jessica Tearney-Pearce is a Woolf Institute Cambridge PhD candidate at St John's College and in the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on inter- and intra-cultural and confessional communication and the sharing of practices, spaces, and ideas in the pre-modern Mediterranean, and her current project examines religions at sea and in maritime contexts.
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