Congratulations, you made it! The 2018 World Cup officially kicks off on Thursday evening in Moscow — Thursday morning for those of us in the United States — with a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
If you haven’t been paying attention, here’s a quick debrief: The United States failed to qualify, and has nobody to blame but themselves. Brazil and Germany are the favorites, Spain is a mess, Will Smith sang the official song, and both FIFA and Russia have ensured that the spectacle of world-class soccer comes with a heaping side of corruption and systemic oppression.
As you’ve probably inferred, this preview will focus on the latter.
FIFA awarded Russia the 2018 World Cup back in 2010. Since then, Russia has interfered with foreign elections, propped up a murderous regime in Syria, invaded Ukraine, gotten kicked out of the G8 for invading Ukraine, poisoned its enemies, and been sanctioned for facilitating the one of the biggest state-sponsored doping scandals in the history of sports at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
And yet, here we are. Despite FIFA’s much-touted ethics reforms, and pressure from some within FIFA to hold dishonest officials accountable, it turns out that there is no breaking the bond of FIFA, Russia, and corruption.
If you want to be really fun at World Cup watch parties over the next month, we’ve got you covered.
Labor exploitation, free speech crackdowns, and other human rights abuses
In 2015, FIFA assured the global soccer community that human rights would be an integral part of its mission going forward, including as part of its ongoing preparation for the World Cups in Russia and Qatar. In 2017, FIFA unveiled its first-ever Human Rights Policy, and said that it “recognizes its obligation to uphold the inherent dignity and equal rights of everyone affected by its activities.”
And yet, according to Human Rights Watch, we are currently in the middle of the “worst human rights crisis in Russia since the Soviet era.” And FIFA has done next to nothing about it.
Tens of thousands of workers — many of them migrants — were hired to help build the stadiums and infrastructure necessary for the World Cup. HRW found that many of those workers were being exploited — forced to work without contracts, payment, adequate rest, and even in conditions as cold as minus 25 degrees celsius at times (that’s 13 degrees below zero here in the states). Among the workers were over 100 North Koreans, who Josimar described as “slaves and hostages.”
Twenty-one workers have reportedly died working on World Cup stadium sites. Some of the workers who tried to protest abusive labor practices and unsafe working conditions were arrested or deported for doing so.
FIFA established a monitoring system in 2016 to check on labor conditions, but HRW found that system to be limited at best — inspection visits were pre-announced, workers were forbidden from talking with FIFA officials during some of those visits, and anyone who was allowed to speak with officials was often afraid to report problems, out of fear of retaliation.
Online free speech is also being restricted in Russia as a means to stifle any political opposition to President Vladimir Putin or his policies. (Yes, the Russian government doesn’t just work to control foreign elections — it hacks its own elections, too).
While organizations like HRW try to shine a spotlight on these poor human rights practices, Russia is doing all it can to quash protests, even peaceful ones. Last year, Putin outlawed public assemblies in World Cup host cities unless Russia’s Federal Security Service and Ministry of Interior approved the time, route, and number of participants in the assembly. Individuals have already been detained and charged under this new decree, which HRW says violates Russia’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Racism and homophobia in Russian soccer are on the rise
FARE — and organization committed to fighting inequality in soccer — spent months monitoring the country’s football clubs in professional competitions to document instances of racism, nationalism, homophobia, and sexism in Russian football. The organization released its findings last month.
The report found a notable decline in far-right banners displayed, but an increase in discriminatory chants, including monkey-themed chants, neo-Nazi songs, anti-Caucasian chants, and homophobic slurs. It also found that physically abusive hate crimes by Russian far-right fans “remain a problem.”
“There are reasons to hope that during the 2018 FIFA World Cup the authorities will not allow serious violent incidents involving football hooligans to take place by using all the resources of law enforcement agencies and special services,” FARE says. “However, we do not have as much confidence in the prevention of non-violent racist incidents, despite the many well intentioned reassurances.”
FIFA is not protecting the LGBTQ members of the soccer community
The last time Russia hosted an international sporting event — the 2014 winter olympics in Sochi — the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws were a major concern for human rights groups. Things haven’t gotten any better for the Russian LGBTQ community over the last four years.
In 2013, Putin’s administration passed a “gay propaganda” law, which bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relationships,” and has been used to enable, if not outright promote, the persecution of LGBTQ people.
The law directly violates FIFA’s human rights and nondiscrimination policies, yet FIFA, which has forced countries change its laws in the past as a pre-condition of hosting sanctioned events, hasn’t so much as asked that Russia alter it.
Dictators are using the World Cup as propaganda
Let’s talk about Chechnya for a minute. Chechnya is the home of one of the most oppressive regimes in the world — it has committed extrajudicial killings; “enforced” disappearances, torture, and physical abuse; and even killed human rights defenders in the area, among other things.
But in February, FIFA announced that Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, would be the base camp for the Egyptian team.
That decision led to a photo like this, of Mo Salah — one of the most talented and beloved players in the world — smiling and holding hands with Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya.
Ramzan Kadyrov gets his glamour shot with Mo Salah, arguably the most popular footballer in the Muslim world. For more on how Kadyrov has used the World Cup to bolster his Middle East outreach: https://t.co/s1l4jSdMHY. Photo via @marcbennetts1 pic.twitter.com/Ltz0Ycxao2
— Andrew Roth (@Andrew__Roth) June 10, 2018
If only someone could have foreseen this exact scenario. Oh, wait — they did.
“It is likely that Kadyrov will take advantage of Grozny being chosen as the location for a World Cup team training camp to boost his credibility and prestige, for example by availing himself of photo opportunities and suggesting the choice of location comes with the prestige of FIFA’s imprimatur on his leadership,” HRW presciently said last month. “A passionate football fan, Kadyrov is also likely to be a VIP at matches in other parts of Russia.
Of course, the entire reason why Putin wanted the World Cup in Russia in the first place was to improve his image, both domestically and especially internationally.
“Putin wants to present Russia as a strong country—not just in the military sense—that is able to organize events well on an international level,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a Russian-based think tank, told Newsweek. “The World Cup will also be an attempt to soften his iron man reputation.”
The environmental and economic impact is disastrous
Russia has spent at least $12 billion on this World Cup, largely because it had to build or renovate 10 stadiums and dramatically improve infrastructure in many parts of the country to accommodate the event. Bloomberg reports that Russia’s spending on stadium construction and renovation per seat available is by far the most in World Cup history. Considering Russia went almost $40 billion over budget just four years ago when it hosted the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it’s reasonable to wonder just where this money is coming from.
Meanwhile, many World Cup stadiums were build on ecologically sensitive areas, according to the Associated Press.
For example, the stadium in Kaliningrad, which will host England and Spain, was erected on top of one of the few remaining natural wetland sites on the Pregolya River. In Kazan, a riverside meadow which housed several rare species was paved over to expand a parking lot near the arena. Rare trees were removed near a World Cup fan zone in Moscow, and the influx of visitors to the city is expected to worsen Moscow’s already-toxic problem with overflowing landfills.
But, don’t worry — this is the most sustainable World Cup ever!
Street cleanup includes slaughtering stray dogs
I’m sorry to include this one, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t. Despite the protestations of 1.8 million people who signed a petition against the killing of stray animals, the practice continues — in part because, as Deadspin reports, “killing stray animals is a lucrative business in Russia.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happened ahead of the Olympics in Sochi. Negative publicity isn’t enough of a deterrent for some evils.
“We could sit here sniffling all day, but I am working within the framework of our constitution,” Alexei Sorokin, the owner of Basya Service, one of the largest companies behind the culling campaigns, told the Moscow Times earlier this year, after 20 dead dogs were found in a ravine. “Why are we worrying about dogs when we should be worried about people?”
Well, as we’ve already been over, people aren’t being treated much better. Russia has effectively turned into a police state. Homeless people are being bused out of sight, and sex workers are facing increased scrutiny from law enforcement.
Some expect any crackdowns to be kept in check while the World Cup spotlight is focused on Russia, only to ramp up as soon as the tourists and journalists depart.
“The authorities have indicated they will turn on the charm and avoid heavy operations during this World Cup,” Alexei Makarov, a researcher at Memorial, a human rights NGO, told The Independent.
“But perhaps the experience of the 1980s is a useful guide. In late 1980, basically as soon as the last athletes had left Sheremetyevo airport, the arrests were stepped up, the trials began, and the dissident movement was largely decimated.”
Happy World Cup! For the sake of Russian citizens, may it never end.