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Eye on the ball

  • Published at 12:24 am July 15th, 2018
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Putin understands the value of a good show BIGSTOCK

Who really wins a Fifa World Cup?

Nothing gets the blood flowing like a great, big show.

And people in power have always known this -- smartly spending bundles of money on athletic contests which have galvanized people, won hearts, kept people cheering, celebrating, and engrossed in the fight.

The Greeks had their Olympics, the Romans had gladiatorial games, medieval knights battled for glory in tourneys. We, in the 20th century, have the Fifa World Cup.

Of course, there are other sports as well, but nothing beats the beauty and simplicity of football, where basic participation as a spectator is as simple as understanding who scores a goal where, and that the team with more goals wins.

Human beings have an innately competitive spirit, which makes us pick a side and throw all our energies behind it -- when our team wins, we win. When our team suffers a defeat, we feel a level of heartbreak comparable to that of a jilted lover.

In Bangladesh, talks about the World Cup have the ability to melt down class barriers unlike anything else -- a barrier that is normally very much there though we may be embarrassed to admit it. 

When it comes to endlessly deconstructing the relative merits of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, or Pele and Maradona, or the current French side and the current Croatian side, CEOs will argue with their drivers, maids, and cooks. People with the highest level of formal education will get into heated debates with people with little or no schooling.

Forget who the best striker is -- the game of football itself is the great equalizer.

And yet, there is more to why those in power have always put so much importance on giving the people a good sports contest, and putting it front and centre of a people’s identity -- the English cannot be understood without first understanding their brand of football hooliganism, American life is replete with baseball metaphors, and the only thing that seems to have the power to unite Bangladeshis as a nation is the cricket team.

Russia knows that this World Cup will do them a world of good. Cherchesov’s boys will not be taking the cup home this year, but in a sense, Russia and its controversial government has already won. Just look at the smirk on Putin’s face.

When an event has a price-tag as astronomical as the World Cup, avenues for hugely wasteful spending and corruption are always opened up. In present-day Russia, these problems are multiplied -- the Sochi Olympics four years ago, a much smaller event, was plagued with problems, with allegations of money being funnelled away into offshore bank accounts belonging to specific parties.

A quick scroll through the Forbes magazine list of billionaires will show that Russia has its share of obscenely rich people. The wealth of these oligarchs hike up Russia’s economic statistics and skew the picture, but the truth is, as a country, Russia is not rich. 

And while the World Cup will do nothing to solve the rampant inequality and the many social problems of Russia, these oligarchs will be lining their pockets and toasting each other for hosting another successful sporting competition.

No one will have time to talk about how activists protesting Russia’s anti-LGBT laws are being silenced, no one will talk about the two-year imprisonment of an environmental activist a few years ago, no one will talk about Russia’s international aggressions and lack of fair play. But we will all be talking about football.

And about how Russia did a good job as host.

Endless analysis of the World Cup has already taken place, and no doubt, more is forthcoming -- what went wrong, what went right. And we can talk about the sport, there is nothing wrong with that. Pele was right, it truly is a beautiful game, but as we keep our eyes on the literal ball, it is good to also look at the big picture.

The Fifa World Cup shouldn’t be allowed to cover up ugly realities that the VAR doesn’t catch. 

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.