Eight days remain until the biggest sporting event on the planet begins in earnest. The FIFA World Cup: a festival of fun, colour, diversity, happiness and heartbreak.
For many, though, heartbreak in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a daily occurrence. Should you stand in opposition to Putin’s totalitarian regime or even dare to be black, openly gay or transgender, then Russia can be a cruel and unforgiving place.
Homophobia runs deep in Russia. Take for example the three-minute-long anti-gay video, likely produced by the state or a state-controlled apparatus during the last general election, aimed to stir up homophobic and xenophobic feeling to create a fear of the ‘other’, playing on those Russian people with right-leaning tendencies to vote in favour of their megalomaniac leader.
As legendary ex-Everton and Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall quipped when asked if he was looking forward to the World Cup by the Guardian’s Donald McRae:
I am – but it’s in the wrong country. Why would you go to a country where human rights are shit? Where homophobia is horrendous. England should have sent the LGBT team to represent them. Fuck Putin. ‘Here’s our gay team. What are you going to do now?’ Or they should send an all-black team, just to annoy Putin.
Southall is right. And yet, in the excited build-up to this monumental footballing extravaganza, he is virtually a lone voice amidst a sea of over-exuberant fever.
Football, as a community, must strive for democracy and equality. If the beautiful game really mirrors wider society, then much of Russian political culture portrays a concerning strand of undemocratic and intolerant tendencies.
An embarrassing human rights record
While he one-party tyranny of Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the promise of true democracy in Russia has since failed to materialise.
After all, this is a country which, with the world's eyes watching, deliberately annexed the Crimea – and still commits daily atrocities in Ukraine.
Yet, political opposition to Putin and those journalists reporting fairly upon it are frequently attacked as traitors working to advance western interests.
As of the end of May 2018, there are over 70 Ukrainians held illegally in Russia or occupied Crimea on politically motivated charges, or for their faith.
The Independent reported just last week that racist and anti-gay chants have become more common in Russian football as the country prepares to host the World Cup, with nineteen incidents of abusive chants recorded this season.
That compares to two cases the season before, and ten the year before that. Russian national team goalkeeper Guilherme Marinato, a naturalised citizen born in Brazil, was twice targeted by Spartak comparing him a monkey.
Money, money, money... (it's a rich man's world)
Why, then, has FIFA allowed this once great bastion of multiculturalism, love and happiness to fall into the hands of such a poisonous regime which openly allows discrimination to proceed unchecked?
The answer? Money.
It is fitting, then, that the opening fixture of the 21st World Cup will be contested between Russia and the oil-rich Saudi Arabia, another country with a notoriously poor human rights record.
Like in everyday life, cash is king and status is all you need to succeed. Turn your attention to Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and Qatar 2022 if you need evidence of the dirty culture of backhanders and political favours existing within the corridors football's governance.
The powers that be have allowed world’s most adored sporting spectacle to be manipulated into a mere soft power apparatus. Football, it appears, is for sale, and can be bought by anyone.
FIFA, the supposed guardians of our game, have struck an enduring blow against many of the historically marginalised groups in our societies by allowing this brutish regime to get its evil hands on such a historic sporting event.
What do you think? Are there questions to be asked about Russia's hosting of this tournament? Let us know by commenting below.