This has been a strange build up to the World Cup. Instead of the usual excitement, anticipation, and speculation as to who might win and whether or not England have got any chance, it’s been dominated by fears about racism, homophobia and hooliganism. A Foreign Office committee issued a warning this morning about the risks which fans face. Interviews with Gareth Southgate and the players have been more about these issues than the actual football. This is horrible. This isn’t how it should be. And, whilst I do think that the media have come to demonise Russia over the last few years, to a level so ridiculous that it’s comparable with what went on in the 1870s (I’m getting a bit of “in the past stuff” in there, to try to pretend that I’m being on topic!), there is undoubtedly cause for concern. No-one could ever call me anti-Russian, and even I’m saying that there’s cause for concern.
Only a few months ago, Paul Pogba and other black members of the French team were subjected to vile racist abuse during a match between France and Russia in St Petersburg. Last year, during an under 17s match – under 17s, just kids – black members of Liverpool’s team were racially abused by players from Spartak Moscow, a club whose social media sites has referred to its own black players as “chocolates”. Danny Rose said yesterday that he’s asked his family not to travel to the World Cup, because he’s so worried that they might face racist abuse. That’s heartbreaking. He said that his dad’s really upset. To play in a World Cup is such a big thing, such an achievement, such an honour; and Mr Rose should be up there in the stands, bursting with pride. Now he’s not going to get that chance.
When you’re a kid, the players are – obviously! – older than you. Then you get to the point where they’re the same age as you. I’m the same age as the Class of ’92. Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and me – we were born within a few months of each other, and grew up within a few miles of each other, and now they’re all hugely successful, world famous, multi-zillionaires, and I’m … er, anything but! Then the players are younger than you, and you even find yourself watching the likes of Kasper Schmeichel, Thomas Ince and Alex Bruce, whom you remember as toddlers! And then it gets to the point where you are so ancient that you could actually be the mum or dad of the younger players. It’s not great. It really, really is not great!
But you do get this feeling of maternal/paternal pride when young lads you’ve watched come through the juniors make it all the way to the top, and that’s lovely. Last night, both goals in England’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica, our final warm up match before the World Cup, were scored by Manchester lads who came through the United youth system – Marcus Rashford, just 20 years old, and Danny Welbeck. I was so proud of them both, I can’t tell you! And that’s how I want to feel. I don’t want to be worrying that those lads, both black, are going to have people shouting the n word or monkey chants at them.
Ashley Young and Gareth Southgate have both said that the potential problems have been discussed at team meetings. It’s good that the subject is being addressed, and a united front being presented, but this, and the warnings from the Foreign Office, and the concerns expressed in the media, aren’t what the build up to the World Cup should be about, in England or anywhere else. We should be talking about who’s going to be in the England starting XI for the first match. What are our chances? Who’s going to win? Which players and teams are going to light up the tournament? Will it be the big names? Will some young lad come from nowhere and make a name from himself? Will an older player who’s supposed to be past his prime prove that he’s still got it? Will an unfancied team make a fairytale run through to the later stages – remember Iceland at Euro 2016, and Cameroon at Italia ’90? Those magical World Cup moments that you never forget, that people are still talking about years later, that get replayed on TV time after time after time – where will they come from this time?
That’s what we should be thinking about, and talking about. Even the daft side of things. Nigeria’s “interesting” kit. The inevitable photos in the tabloids of players’ glamorous celebrity partners. The quirky things that somehow grab everyone’s attention – remember the vuvuzelas at South Africa 2010? And everyone getting obsessed with Nessun Dorma during Italia ’90? Referees and linesmen (sorry, “referees’ assistants”), because, let’s face it, we all know that there are going to end up being controversial decisions which will make headlines. Who’s got the best commentators, the BBC or ITV? And why are there so few women involved?
But no. Instead, the build up seems to have been mostly about racism, homophobia and hooliganism. Thanks a lot, FIFA. Oh, and where have they chosen for the next World Cup? Qatar! I understand the idea of taking the World Cup to different places – but, seriously, Qatar? Hardly top of the international list when it comes to human rights, is it? And can anyone actually name a single Qatari football club, or even a single Qatari football player? Not to mention the problems with the heat.
Well, we all know very well that something is very rotten in the state of FIFA. But, whatever went on with the voting process in 2010, when Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup and Qatar the 2022 World Cup, this is where we are. And no-one’s saying that Russia is the only country in the world where these problems exist. There’ve been horrendous incidences of racist abuse at football matches in Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine, Germany and elsewhere in recent years. Hooliganism … well, we can’t deny the involvement of some English fans in clashes in France in 2016, and it wasn’t just English and Russian fans either. And there were been some nasty incidents in Spain, Italy and elsewhere during European club matches in the season just gone. But Russia is where the World Cup’s being held, so it’s Russia (and, yes, I do know that I should really be saying “the Russian Federation”) at which we’re looking.
OK, that was a long rant! What about the actual programme? Well, quite honestly, it was a bit of a piss-take. Frankie Boyle, who presented it, is very, very funny, and he made me laugh all the way through, from his deadpan comments about the weather (he went in February, in several inches of snow) and his horrible breakfast to his brilliant crack about how the Russian stadia will be used for football after the World Cup whereas the London 2012 Olympic stadium was handed over to West Ham. I don’t like West Ham, sorry! And watching a Cossack chop up a cabbage with his sword was certainly entertaining. It was all entertaining. But it all gave the impression of not taking things very seriously, and this just isn’t funny. It’s not funny that a member of the England squad is so worried about potential abuse that he’s asked his family members not to go. It’s not funny that black/ethnic minority fans are being warned that they may be at risk of abuse. It’s not funny that LGBT fans are being warned not to make an obvious show of their sexuality. It is just not funny at all.
Some of it was serious, admittedly. And some of the points, whilst made in a jokey way, were very valid. What the hell was Boris Johnson thinking of, comparing the 2018 World Cup to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “Hitler’s Games”? Has the man never heard of the Siege of Leningrad, or the Siege of Stalingrad? Does he have any idea how many people the Soviet Union lost in the fight against the Nazis? As Frankie said, remarks like that, from a senior member of the British government, are offensive to put it mildly.
That was at the end of the programme. It began with a visit to the Luzhniki Stadium. Now, as we all know, the Luzhniki Stadium was the scene of one of the greatest events in the history of the universe – United winning the 2008 European Cup/Champions League. Against Chelsea. Now, thinking back, I cannot remember any particular warnings or concerns at the time about the final being played in Moscow. OK, it was a one-off match, but even so. And that says a lot about how much has changed in the last few years … oh dear, was it really ten years ago?! And, to be fair to FIFA, in the eight years since the decision to stage the 2018 World Cup in Russia was made. The war in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea. The worrying and highly discriminatory “homosexual propaganda” law. All the failed drugs tests. Syria. The allegations over interference in the US presidential election. And, most recently, the Salisbury poisonings. That’s quite a mixture of things, but it’s all served to worsen Russia’s image in the media … and, of course, the nature of the media has changed a lot in that time, as well.
So how much of the genuine fear about racism and homophobia is well grounded? Well, strangely, the programme barely mentioned racism. And Frankie seemed to be setting out to look for trouble. He spoke to was some kind of obsessive Putin fan, who was clearly rather weird and presumably not at all representative of Russian opinion. Frankie tried to get him to talk about the issue of homophobia. The guy insisted that there were no gay people in Russia. Frankie, serious for once, tried to talk about the need for equality and human rights, but he just couldn’t get any sense out of the guy. That was clearly worrying, but surely it would have been better to have spoken to the man/woman on the street, in order to get some sort of accurate gauge of public opinion?
And he went to some rather odd organisation which was training people in how to greet visiting fans – and, as he said, it was a bit like a Swiss finishing school. All social etiquette stuff. But, again, hardly representative of any sort of general public opinion. And then on to the hairdresser’s. That bit was actually better, because the woman in the hairdresser’s made some interesting comments about Russian views on women, and how society there’s still quite patriarchal. But it was all interspersed with stuff about beards and male grooming, which I don’t really think is anyone’s main concern ahead of the World Cup!
Then on to Rostov-on-Don. Glasgow’s twin city. Supposedly infamous for hooliganism. I thought that was Spartak Moscow! United played Rostov not so long ago, and there was no trouble. And Frankie didn’t find any trouble either – there were lots of families at the match, and it was all very nice. He then spent a lot of time hanging around with Cossacks. I was rather disappointed that none of the Rostov fans at Old Trafford turned up in Cossack dress, I have to say! The idea of Cossacks policing football matches – which apparently is going to happen – sounds a bit bonkers, and we were shown videos of the worrying scenes at the Sochi Winter Olympics in which Pussy Riot (thank you, Google – the programme didn’t mention the group’s name, and I couldn’t remember it and kept thinking “Pussycat Dolls”!), the protest punk group, were whipped by Cossacks. But, instead of talking about that, we then got scenes of a Cossack chopping up a cabbage with his sword. Yes, it made for good TV, but I doubt that worried fans and players are going to be very reassured by seeing someone chop up a cabbage.
Frankie did seem to be concluding that there wasn’t that much to worry about, politicians were making things worse and the media were creating a bit of a fuss about nothing. I hope he’s right. But I’m not sure that making a comedy programme about people’s very real fears, over such serious issues as racism and homophobia, is really very appropriate. Frankie was clearly taking the issues seriously, especially in the discussion with the very strange man who just wouldn’t acknowledge that people could be gay, but the tone of the programme just didn’t really work for me. These aren’t laughing matters. I love Russia, but no-one can deny that there have been some horrible racist incidents at football matches there, very recently, and the anti-gay “propaganda” law of 2013 has no place in any decent society. No offence to Frankie Boyle, who is a comedian and was being a comedian, but, BBC, don’t say that you’re going to show a programme about something so serious and so horrible and then show a bloke chopping up a cabbage with a sword. It just isn’t appropriate.
Here’s to a wonderful World Cup. May it be full of wonderful football, and free from any sort of unpleasantness. We can but hope.