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We can’t separate the World Cup from the real world

Vladimir Putin’s handshake with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was a reminder that soccer is still deeply embedded in world politics.

68th FIFA Congress Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

The first goal scored in a World Cup is exhilarating. It’s a release of four years of anticipation. It’s a signifier that the greatest sporting event to ever exist has truly started — the ribbon-cutting of the beautiful game on its biggest stage. When Yury Gazinsky scored Russia’s first goal against Saudi Arabia, the crowd erupted and he was swarmed by his teammates before he could even begin to properly celebrate.

That moment of joy was quickly followed by discomfort when the camera panned to Russian president Vladimir Putin laughing and shaking hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, while FIFA president Gianni Infantino sat in between.

We love to think of events like the World Cup as being transcendent. We wish for them to be places of escape from the problems of the real world, a space where otherwise different people people can relate to and understand each other, where we can come together in celebration.

The image of the three men encroached on the idealism of the World Cup. It jerked us back to world politics and the forces behind it.

In his own speech before the game, Putin echoed the sunny view that the World Cup can be a unifying force:

“We have been responsibly preparing to host this wonderful event and we have done our utmost for fans, athletes and experts to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a splendid football feast, and of course we hope they enjoy their stay in Russia, an open, hospitable and friendly country, and meet new friends – people with whom they share the same values.”

That idealistic view of the tournament is perfect for marketing the sport and increasing its reach. Soccer is the world’s game, so the world must feel welcome. But a lie is a lie regardless of how often we repeat it.

On the same day that the World Cup began, Peter Tatchell, a gay British activist was arrested and charged with violating a federal law that prohibited protests near the Kremlin and during the World Cup. He was peacefully protesting Putin’s handling of LGBTQ issues.

A gay couple was also beaten and sent to the hospital before the first game kicked off. And along with homophobia, Russia has a well-documented history of racism that has made players like English defender Danny Rose to tell his family not to attend the tournament, and prompted Infantino to grant referees the power to end a game because of racist abuse.

Back in March, the English and Icelandic Football Associations announced that none of their officials would go to Russia for the World Cup, in protest to a nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia on English soil. The British royal family also announced that they would not attend the World Cup for the same reason. Poland, Australia, and Finland made similar announcements earlier this month.

The World Cup doesn’t exist in a vacuum from the real world. Even when the politics of it aren’t as clear as Putin and Salman shaking hands, teams can still be used as tools of propaganda. And the problems extend beyond Russia.

The stadiums and other infrastructure for the Brazilian World Cup were built by displacing poor people. FIFA made billions, while citizens of Brazil protested against social and wealth inequality. The same sort of displacement took place in 2010 with South Africa, all in the name of the tournament.

The big difference between the previous two tournaments and Russia is that, then, media around the world sensationalized the news by playing into the trope of poor and dangerous black and brown people. There was no attempt to look at the reasons behind those nations’ problems with poverty and violence, just lazy stereotypes and coded racism.

The next World Cup will be in Qatar, where migrant workers are being abused and exploited to build infrastructure. Meanwhile, the United States was just granted the 2026 World Cup, along with Mexico and Canada, while the current administration is separating immigrant children from their parents and putting them in detention centers.

It’s understandable if people want something to enjoy that is sacred from politics and suffering. The problem is that as long as the tournament exists in this world, we can’t pretend that the most idealistic vision of the World Cup is reality. In 2014, Supriya Nair wrote about the history of the World Cup, the politics surrounding it, and the redemptive power of the sport. The article ended with:

“This tournament, too, will mete out small acts of justice that may blossom into great collective optimism. But its audience, too, is on trial; and however we choose to act, one thing is clear—it is only for the footballers on the pitch for whom the outsiders cannot exist. If we are listening to what is going on within the walls of the World Cup’s great tent, it is imperative that we also listen to what goes on outside.”

We can’t look at the World Cup as the happy thing being presented by broadcasts and world leaders. But that idealism, the notion that the tournament is a celebration of life and its people, can be important. We don’t have to delude ourselves into being passive so we can enjoy the game. What we need is to actively reconcile the beauty of the sport with the world that we live in.

Soccer can’t really be the beautiful game if it comes at the cost of human lives. There’s no beauty in a tournament if it causes people to be displaced, or arrested for being poor or gay. The sport and its audience deserve better than that.

To change the world through the sport is a lot to ask, and there’s no reason to think things will ever be different. But it’s something worth fighting for, because the game should be as welcoming and pure as we already pretend that it is. The first day of this World Cup was another reminder that soccer doesn’t exist outside the real world, and the worst thing that we can do is ignore that truth.