- More to follow?
That the Kremlin State Palace was chosen in December as the scene to draw teams into eight groups in the ongoing FIFA World Cup was perhaps a sign for things to come. Vladimir Putin, not known to have taken any particular interest in football prior to the World Cup, was always going to – and has – use the tournament to promote whatever he feels is worth propagating as the ‘Russian way’. However, the stage seems to have been set for more than just the promotion of ‘Mother Russia’.
Even a week before the World Cup was supposed to kick off, the Argentinian team pulling out of its friendly in Israel had become a political talking point. The decision was taken amidst Palestinian protests – and threats – with special pleas being sent out to Lionel Messi, resulting in all kinds of fabricated news about the Barcelona superstar influencing the pull out ‘on moral grounds’.
While keeping politics away from anything – let alone sports – is almost an impossible task when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the World Cup has provided a platform to many other political undertones to explode on the biggest global stage.
The most high-profile event thus far came during Switzerland’s 2-1 win against Serbia. When a country like Switzerland can be mired in political controversy, you know it wasn’t for anything mundane.
Another talking point has come through the Iranian fans delegation, with women rejoicing at the fact that they can watch their side’s matches with their male counterparts
Not only did the Swiss and Serbian sides serve up one of the contests of the tournament, it created the biggest controversy thus far as well when the Swiss goal scorers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri celebrated their strikes with the double-eagle symbol with their hands.
It is a nationalist sign symbolic of the black eagle in the Albanian flag. Xhaka and Shaqiri have their familial roots in Kosovo, which is an ethnically Albanian province that fought an independence war against Serbia and is now internationally considered a disputed territory despite having declared its independence in 2008. Both Xhaka and Shaqiri could be looking at FIFA imposed two-match bans for their celebrations.
The second biggest political controversy involved someone who would be a strong contender to win the Ballon D’Or this year – and would’ve been an even stronger one had Egypt qualified for the knockout stages of the World Cup.
Mohamed Salah has been pushed on the brink of retirement from international football, at the age of 26, after bearing the brunt of Egyptian football federation’s decision to live and train in Chechnya during the World Cup.
Before the tournament was about to begin Salah’s photos emerged with Chechen President Ramzan A. Kadyrov at Egypt’s first training session. Kadyrov has overseen extrajudicial killings and a homophobic spree of violence. Last week, the Chechen leader hosted the Egyptian squad for dinner and at presented Salah the honorary citizenship of Chechnya.
Of course, the decision to live in Chechnya during the World Cup wasn’t Salah’s. It wasn’t the Liverpool forward who was hankering after the dinner, the pictures or the Chechnyan citizenship. And if footballers were condemned every time they took pictures with those involved in human rights abuse of some form, they wouldn’t be able to appear in the same frame as many high-profile individuals.
But Salah feels let down by the Egyptian federation, which he believes hasn’t done enough to shield him from the controversy. Let’s hope he doesn’t announce the retirement, lest it be one that is retracted soon enough for it to become a mocking sport.
For the Russians themselves the biggest political story has been their football side, which has been a revelation in every possible way. The locals, who didn’t give them a chance of qualifying from their group, are now chanting slogans for their side going all the way! Yes, they did come unstuck against a much more experienced Uruguay in the final group match, but the team that nobody gave any hope is now in the knockout stages, uniting a fractured federation.
Another talking point has come through the Iranian fans delegation, with women rejoicing at the fact that they can watch their side’s matches with their male counterparts. An image of a woman having taken off the hijab shown in her Fan ID during the matches has gone viral on social media.
The Iranian fans pack the stadia wherever their team is playing. And it was owing to this very support, by people of a country suffering the wrath of US sanctions and a plunging economy, that meant that Iran was a few inches away from qualifying out of a group that had Spain and Portugal, by almost beating the latter in the dying stages at the Moldavian Arena.
We’re still at the group stages, and there’s still almost three weeks of the FIFA World Cup to go. Rest assured there are many more stories to follow.