Enjoy the goals, remember the jails: A brief guide to Russia 2018

The World Cup is a welcome recess from the commodification of the Beautiful Game.

Modern soccer has many faces.

It has been corrupted by FIFA, and obscene wealth has alienated players from the lives of the masses who support them. 

Yet the cracks still let some light in. Soccer fashioned on resistance and joy on the fields and squares of the global south is still delivered into stadiums built on European power. 

These many faces will again be on display when 32 teams step out into the Russian summer for the FIFA World Cup. 

The globalisation of soccer means that clubs no longer represent the communities in which they were born. Instead, they have become brands for sale on the world market. 

The world cup is a welcome recess from the commodification of the game, however. 

The spectacle will call attention to the fault lines along which the many remain separated from the few: it offers a chance to measure the participating teams on their politics. 

So, where should this measurement begin? 

In the first place, it is a travesty that some teams have been allowed to participate in the tournament at all. 

The Australian government, for example, continues to oversee Gulag-like conditions at the Manus Island and Nauru “refugee centres”. Thousands of asylum seekers are stranded at the centres, where abhorrent conditions have driven many to suicide. 

Australia’s domestic cruelty stands in stark contrast to the benign opposition its soccer team will probably pose to their Group C counterparts in Russia: France, Peru and Denmark.

Uruguay will be dark horses at the tournament. There is no love lost between African fans and the South American nation since Luis Suarez infamously fleeced Ghana of a spot in the semi-finals when the tournament was hosted in South Africa.

In the ledgers of football, however, we remain indebted to Uruguay for Eduardo Galeano. 

A self-confessed “beggar for beautiful football”, Galeano’s journalism was an antidote to political amnesia in Latin America. He will be the beautiful game’s eternal conscience. 

Brazil are the bookies’ favourite in Russia. The South Americans’ famed joga bonito, a style which Galeano described as “open to fantasy”, will be dampened this year, however. 

The stars of Neymar, Phillipe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Roberto Firmino promise to shine among the brightest in Russia. But no Brazilian wizardry will escape the reactionary shadow emanating from their home shores. 

The judiciary has impeached an elected president – the former Marxist revolutionary Dilma Rousseff – and facilitated neoliberal reforms by protecting her unelected successor, Michel Temer. 

Lula Da Silva, who became the country’s most popular politician after his sweeping pro-poor reforms lifted millions out of poverty throughout the 2000s, has also been jailed. 

The coup which ousted Rousseff, and eventually put Lula in prison, also snatched from us a great footballing hero, souring many joyful memories. 

Ronaldinho, one of joga bonito’s greatest ever exponents, endorsed the presidential campaign of former army captain Jair Bolsonaro in the aftermath of the coup. Bolsonaro had voted to impeach Rousseff in parliament; an act he dedicated to the colonel responsible for Rousseff’s physical torture by Brazil’s dictatorship. 

Like Uruguay and Brazil, Argentina will arrive in Russia with an embarrassment of attacking talent, spearheaded by one of the game’s greatest ever players, Lionel Messi. 

Haunted by the ghosts of its own brutal dictatorship, Argentina’s history off of the pitch is a bloody one. Their history on the pitch, however, has often been radical. 

The country’s second most capped player, Javier Zanetti, championed the Zapatista’s revolutionary project. Messi’s predecessor, Diego Maradona, is a supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution and has been critical of American imperialism.

This progressive history is alive again leading into Russia.

In a move that has augmented resistance against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Argentina cancelled its final warm up game scheduled to be played in Israel. The cancellation, which has been celebrated in Palestine, comes after the Israeli military killed more than 60 Palestinians protesting at the border between Gaza and Israel. 

Sadly, Messi and his cohort of superstars will also bear the flag for consolidated austerity in Argentina. The country’s once formidable welfare programmes have been systematically slashed during Mauricio Macri’s two terms as president. 

Ghosts wander beyond Argentina’s borders. Many of them are young. By the time the first goal is scored in Russia, more than 44 months will have passed since the Mexican police and military, in collaboration with local gangsters, disappeared 43 students of the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College. 

One of the six students killed during the operation was tortured before his death. The details of the students’ disappearance remain murky, and justice has been deferred. 

It is clear, however, that they are among the almost endless victims of the convergence of violent cartels and corrupt army and police. Human rights organisations estimate that as many as 100,000 people have been disappeared in Mexico. 

The Mexican team is also tainted by this bloody marriage. One of the country’s greatest ever players, Rafael Márquez, will travel to Russia despite being sanctioned for alleged ties to drug-trafficking.

Record unemployment and sluggish growth in Europe have been birthed as twins with a right-wing resurgence and far-ranging austerity measures that are well represented at the tournament. 

All of the participating European teams have records of islamophobia and xenophobia. Poland currently has a far-right-wing government. With the exceptions of Sweden, Iceland and European champions Portugal, all of the remaining European teams are currently under conservative administrations. 

One of these teams is defending champions, Germany. 

The last time the Germans placed outside of the top three at a World Cup was in France in 1998. The first euro coins were still being minted in Bordeaux. 

In Russia, Germany will again be among the favourites. Players from country’s few anti-capitalist clubs will not be represented in the national side, however. Mainz 05 barely escaped relegation this past season, and the now iconic St Pauli are battling it out in the second division. 

England’s world cup hopes are invariably driven by memories of 1966 – their only previous success at the tournament. The same longing to reclaim Britain’s glorious past has played a leading part in Brexit, and the resultant escalation of bigotry and hate crimes on England’s streets.

As is often the case, however, the light which shines through reactionary European cracks comes from Africa. 

In Liverpool, in the heart of a Brexiteer Britain obsessed with racial exclusion, the Anfield faithful have taken to singing: “If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me. If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.” 

The performances of Mohammed Salah, a Muslim Egyptian, have inspired a welcome renaissance in the city’s history of working class militancy. Salah, who has built schools and funded ambulances in his rural home region, is currently the Premier League’s best player.

Salah’s participation in Russia is in doubt after his shoulder ligaments were injured when Sergio Ramos — who will turn out at the showpiece for Spain — cynically hurled the Egyptian to the floor during the first half of the Champions League final, effectively ending any hopes of a famous Liverpool victory. 

While Salah’s genius has been a revelation on the pitches of Europe, however, state repression in his home country has buried the popular hopes ignited during the Arab Spring in 2011. The military regime installed by a 2013 coup has jailed more than 50 000 political prisoners. 

The blight of the Egyptian state’s newfound repression has not left soccer untouched.

Egyptian soccer stadiums have stood empty since the coup. Soccer fans, who are closely associated with the country’s worker movements and played a major role in the 2011 revolution, are now prohibited from attending club matches. 

So what hope is there for the beggars of beautiful football at Russia 2018? 

Our hope should be placed in Senegal. The Lions of Teranga have a well-balanced squad. They will call on the talents of, among others, Idrissa Gueye – an uncomplicated and hard-working midfielder – and Kalidou Koulibaly – the most impressive defender in Italy’s Serie A over the last three seasons. 

Koulibaly has turned down repeated overtures by Chelsea – the reactionary London club whose success is funded by the Russian oligarchy – to stay in Naples where he plays for the comparatively working-class Napoli. 

The jewel in the Senegalese crown, however, is Sadio Mane. Mane, a breakneck forward, was as important as Salah to Liverpool’s offensive prowess. Another African Muslim of humble origins, his performances also contributed to Anfield’s rejection of Brexiteer bigotry. 

Mane and Senegal will be the rays of light in an otherwise dark Russian summer.

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