The Bristol Cable

Award winning football author, David Goldblatt, delivered a fascinating talk on Putin, politics and football.

This event was made possible by members of the Bristol Cable.

“You know you have World Cup fever when you’re sitting in your pyjamas, it’s 8:45 am and you’re watching the FIFA Congress on YouTube.”

These are the opening words of David Goldblatt, acclaimed sports author, journalist and all round football fanatic. Goldblatt is speaking to a packed audience of the public and Bristol Cable members on the eve of the FIFA World Cup 2018, which controversially for many, is being held in Russia.

Watching the FIFA congress sounds like a dull affair, but something extraordinary happens. President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, sweeps in unannounced takes to the rostrum and begins his speech with the hysterical statement “sport is beyond politics.”

The absurdity of this statement initially gets laughed at by Goldblatt, but upon further reflection he says, “there’s a way in which he speaks to a deeper truth.”

Goldblatt is unequivocal about the relationship between sport and politics:

Sport has gone beyond politics in the 21st century, particularly in the realm of football, because it is entirely incorporated and subsumed by politics.

Football politics worldwide

As with influential fan groups at club level, there has always been an element of ‘soft power’ in big sporting events like the World Cup, with some taking a harder edge than others. Take 1934, when Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini used the tournament as a vehicle to promote fascism and Italian supremacy (they won). In this context, Goldblatt believes that the last twenty years has seen a sharp increase in sport in general, and football in particular being engulfed in politics.

All over the world, powerful people use football for political power and gain. There are unbelievable stories, such as the Argentinian government nationalising TV football rights. And the seemingly absurd, but true story of the Myanmar military chief contemplating buying Manchester United for $1 billion.

So, the World Cup in 2018 and Putin’s involvement in football and politics should be seen as just one example, of a wider, truly extraordinary and slightly unfathomable trend, in which football has become one of the main places in which these kind of political ambitions and ideas are expressed.

Football, power and oligarchs

Putin has been at the helm of the Russian government for the last twenty years. However football politics were at play long before Putin’s premiership.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was an opportunity for Russia’s domestic clubs to launch a power grab. The ‘peoples team’ of Spartak Moscow were the first to move and were handed a vast property empire which meant they dominated the 1990’s and were year-on-year Russia’s representative in the financially lucrative Champions League.

Spartak and other Russian clubs also benefited from an incredible policy implemented by the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin. Clubs were allowed to import tax-free foreign cigarettes and alcohol to sell inside their stadiums. Spartak and other Russian clubs got stinking rich.

When Putin came into power in 2000, one of his first tasks was to invite the fat cat oligarchs and owners of Russia’s football clubs in for a meeting. Goldblatt explains how this went down, “he said boys, this is the deal, you can keep your money… but there are two conditions – 1. no politics … and 2. when I ask you to pay up for shit, you pay up… and the oligarchs who don’t play ball… they’re out.”

Russia’s hooligans

Goldblatt then moved on to the hooligans of Russia, who infamously battered English fans during Euro 2016 in France.

They consider the English hooligans of the 70’s and 80’s to be the gold standard of toxic masculinity and nihilism… and skinhead culture became a way of saying ‘fuck off’ to the Soviet Union.

You had the anti-migrant, ultra-nationalist, christian orthodox revivalists emerging after being repressed for so long and the football hooligans are very much a part of that.

But when the when the Russian hooligans met the English in France they were disappointed.

It was like finding out your Gods feet are made out of clay.

Putin had plans for these hooligans, employing them to be security for government run youth organisations and also to beat up dissenters. Russian football hooligans were also at the centre of the biggest anti-migrant protest since the fall of the Soviet Union.

When addressing the hysteria around Russian hooligans causing mayhem at this years’ World Cup, Goldblatt posed this “Do you really think that Vladimir Putin is gonna let these bunch of low-lives fuck with his World Cup?” In case you’re not sure, the answer is unequivocally, no.”

How to host a World Cup

“Russia is often portrayed as being powerful, but Russia is weak and what Russia does comes from weakness and not strength.” Goldblatt cites a weak and fragile economy, a shrinking population, a lack of international allies and an army that would struggle to stand up to the USA and NATO.

“Russia does however, have a world class secret service, it’s got a world class capacity for asymmetric and electronic warfare, it’s got a political culture and a public that is not bothered with pissing with the rules based international order and is prepared to use military force… so no wonder they won the right to host the 2018 World Cup.”

And so how does the Russian government respond to an investigation into their tactics to win the World Cup hosting rights? Goldblatt sets out the farcical and brazen responses:

Can we have your emails?

No you can’t have the emails, we haven’t got any

Computers?

No we haven’t got any computers.

So, what about the servers? That’s got your emails on it.

Yes, but you can’t have the servers

Why can’t we have the servers?

Well, because we’ve had them incinerated.

Goldblatt described this years World Cup as, “the most extraordinary, politicised World Cup ever.” And whilst a self confessed cynic, he still has romanticism for the competition. “This planet of 7 billion people, we don’t do anything in the same numbers simultaneously as we do when it comes to watching the World Cup. Nothing, no funeral, no inauguration, no presidential speech comes close to the World Cup.”

So now you know the politics, enjoy the football.

A big thank you to David Goldblatt, Maff Tucker for chairing, the Bristol Cable members for making this event possible.  

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