Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, center, Giani Infantino, president of FIFA, center right, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, stand during the opening ceremony for the FIFA World Cup at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

You Can Hate Putin But Love the World Cup

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The soccer World Cup has barely started, but it’s already created a moral dilemma for some. 

Ukrainian artist Andriy Yermolenko made a series of “alternative promo posters” for the soccer World Cup now unfolding in Russia, replete with blood, skulls and dead babies. They’ve gone viral in Ukraine, but Ukrainian state TV still broadcasts the World Cup despite the war Russian proxies wage in the country’s east. The official reason is that the national broadcaster doesn’t want to  lose the rights to the 2022 World Cup, which it has also bought. But then some 4 million Ukrainians watched the World Cup’s opening game between Russia and Saudi Arabia, so it wasn’t a bad business  move either.

In the U.K., Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson agreed with a Labour legislator’s suggestion that the World Cup is similar to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics and said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “glorying in this sporting event” would be “an emetic prospect.” The U.K. has sent no officials to the tournament, and the royal family has made a point of not having any of its members attend. And yet the U.K. is one of the top 10 countries outside Russia when it comes to World Cup ticket sales; 32,362 Brits decided to attend the games. 

Despite the Russia-centered political storm, which has convinced many Americans that Russia tried to undermine U.S. democracy, Americans bought the most tickets to the World Cup of any foreign nation – 88,825.

“Fans and politics are the hopeless combination,” Nick Cohen wrote in the Guardian. “The battle is always unequal. If you wonder how you would have reacted to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, look at how you are reacting to Putin’s 2018 World Cup and learn something about yourself and the nature of sport.” 

But the sports fans visiting Russia despite warnings of anti-Western sentiment, homophobia, racism and rampant crime will inevitably see more than just the soccer games or the propaganda facade Putin would like them to see.

Unlike Olympics, held at a handful of heavily-guarded, easy-to-monitor locations, big soccer tournaments are wide-open affairs. The current World Cup is played in 11 Russian cities, from the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea to Yekaterinburg in the Ural mountains. Some Australian, Chinese and Japanese fans took the Trans-Siberian railroad to get to Russia’s European part, where the World Cup is played.

There and everywhere, fans have been exposed to an unadorned version of Russia. Despite the many attempts to spruce things up (including the jails!) for the event, many fans will witness cramped, barely furnished apartments renting out for a fortune on Airbnb. They’ll brave the potholes on Russian roads, fly rickety planes on local routes and ride the shabby but convivial trains. German fans will encounter youths with mocking Nazi salutes, and the Brits will be asked disbelievingly about the Skripal poisoning affair. There will likely be racist incidents, too, and Communist lawmaker Tamara Pletnyova actually warned Russian women against having sex with people of other races during the World Cup – not that anyone was listening.

On Saturday, a Moscow taxi driver drove into a crowd of people, injuring eight, including two Mexican World Cup visitors. The driver, from the impoverished former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan, had spent 20 hours behind the wheel after just three hours of sleep; he lost control of the car after mixing up the brake and gas pedals. With crowds of foreigners of every conceivable nationality reveling in central Moscow, exposure to this side of the Russian capital’s life is inevitable.

In other words, there’s no way to build a Potemkin village big enough to deceive the visitors about what Russia is really like; Leonid Brezhnev had a much better chance at that with the 1980 Olympics.

Sure, Putin and his allies use the opportunity to milk the event for some soft power. Putin, not a soccer fan, kicked a ball around with FIFA president Gianni Infantino in the Kremlin. Chechnya’s brutal ruler Ramzan Kadyrov had his pictures taken with Egypt and Liverpool striker Mohammed Salah, presumably to boost his standing in the Muslim world, where Salah is a superstar. But then fans won’t see much of Russia’s rulers, nor do they care one way or another.

They get to party with Russians, see the country and watch the games, which, so far, have been impeccably organized and mostly exciting. Only 28 percent of Russians hold passports that enable them to travel abroad so many others now get to see the world at their doors.

Those who have compared the World Cup with the 1936 Olympics, held when German Jews were already being stripped of citizenship and after their businesses had been “Aryanized,” should keep in mind that Russia isn’t about to launch a version of the Holocaust or a world war. It’s a country teetering between closing down to the world and staying as open as it became in the 1990s. It can be both ugly and welcoming, sometimes at the same time; and in any case, it’s not adequately represented by its leaders, as anyone will find out even after a few days spent going to soccer games.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.