Ireland’s crunch clash with the Welsh at the Aviva Stadium looms large this Friday night, where just a draw would see the Boys in Green retain top spot in the group. This would put Ireland in a great position at the half-way point of the qualification process. The carrot at the end of the stick is a coveted place in the FIFA World Cup two summers from now, where 32 teams from across the globe will do battle for the Jules Rimet Trophy. While I, as much as any Irish football fan, would love to see us progress to our 3rd major tounament of the decade and our first World Cup in 16 years (doesn’t that make you feel old) I don’t see myself following Martin O’Neill’s men to Russia, but would cheer them on from the safety of my local pub. Here are my reasons why.
I must admit, one reason I was disappointed to see Russia awarded the World Cup back in 2010 was the fact that England had also been in the running to host it and that would have been amazing. Even taking the rose-tinted glasses off, Russia’s bid was shrouded in controversy. Disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter claimed in a 2015 interview with the Russian state news agency Tass: “In 2010 we had a discussion of the World Cup and then we went to a double decision. For the World Cups it was agreed that we go to Russia [in 2018] because it’s never been in Russia”. Coupled with the baffling decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and move that tournament to the winter, it is easy to imagine that the process to award Russia the tournament was also not on the level. Russian sport has already been exposed as corrupt following the discovery of the widespread state-sponsored doping of their Olympic athletes which dogged their participation in Rio last summer, so the awarding of the World Cup to them certainly leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
In case you haven’t noticed, Russia is absolutely massive. Above is a map of the host cities, from the appropriately named RussiaTrek website. A staple of any Irish presence at a major tournament is a convoy of camper vans flying the tricolour and driving from match to match. Good luck doing that in Russia. A brief selection of possible locations if Ireland were to qualify for the tournament. Team B3 will play their games in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kalingrad. The drive from St. Petersburg to Moscow is 10 hours, while the drive back to Kalingrad will be a leisurely 16. Including tolls and petrol money, that will make for an expensive few weeks. It’s not even that it has been badly organised. The venues that have been chosen will result in the shortest journey times possible for travelling fans. Unfortunately, that’s still a huge amount of travelling to be doing if you wanted to take in the whole experience.
Racism & Hooliganism
While vestiges of the bygone era of football hooliganism and the racism that accompanies it still remain in European football as a whole, there is no denying that eastern Europe lags behind in terms of reform. Not localised just in Russia, this problem persists across the region. Just a few months ago, Legia Warsaw were handed a stadium ban following their match against Borussia Dortmund, where Warsaw ultras attempted to break into the section holding the Dortmund supporters. Just last summer, the main blot on the spectacle of Euro 2016 was the clashes between Russia’s fans and opposition, most notably against the English in Marseille.
This hooliganism is even supported by some members of the Russian government, with Nationalist MP Igor Lebedev telling them at the time to “keep it up”. Lebedev was in the news again recently, as he suggested that hooliganism should be dealt with by organising prearranged fights in arenas and making it a spectator sport. Just this week, the leader of the Landscrona mob from St. Petersburg told the Daily Mirror; “You think it was bad in France – wait until Russia. This is our home fixture.” Hooliganism goes hand in hand with racism and there is a huge concern that this could rear its’ head at the tournament. There will be a huge influx of ethnicities, both in the stands and on the pitch, and Russia will become a cultural melting pot for a month. It is worrying as the director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, Alexander Brod, stated that surveys show xenophobia and other racist expressions are prevalent in 50 percent of Russians. In 2006, Amnesty International reported that racism in Russia was “out of control” and estimated the number of Russian neo-Nazis at around 85,000 in 2008. After it was announced that Russia would host the tournament, a head of UEFA FARE Monitoring Centre, Dr Rafał Pankowski accused the Russian Football Union of downplaying racist chants in stadiums, saying: “Nazi slogans are common in many Russian stadiums. Matches are often interrupted with racist chants aimed at black players.” More than 100 incidents took place 2012-2014.
It certainly doesn’t paint a pleasant picture. Don’t even get me started on Qatar.