Russia’s World Cup: Putin wins the biggest game of all

On Thursday, soccer’s 21st World Cup opens when, in a chillingly symbolic way, two dictatorships, Russia and Saudi Arabia, meet in the Moscow curtainraiser.

The beautiful game gets down and dirty, hijacked by corrupt commercial and political interests.

It would be dishonest, at this point at least, to compare Vladimir Putin’s World Cup to Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Munich Olympics but in the intervening decades, no other sports carnival was as comparable.

Hitler saw those games as an appeasers’ embrace, as a gesture of fellowship he would betray within three years.

Putin, Russia’s unquestioned leader for 18 years, has betrayed the values that sustain our world for longer than three years.

The charge sheet is long and relevant even in a small island on the fringe of Europe.

That these games were delivered to Moscow by a corrupt Fifa just adds to the stench — a stench that leads all the way to Qatar, the venue for the 2022 charade.

It is naive to speak in charge-sheet terms in relation to Putin.

He has shown contempt for the rule of law, the integrity of democratic states, personal rights and freedoms and, unsurprisingly for a former communist functionary, others’ property rights.

He has successfully accumulated a fortune estimated at $200bn.

That his state-administered doping system meant Russia was banned from this year’s Winter Olympics shows he regards the rules around sport as he regards any other law.

The debate about the role sport plays in politics is as old as football.

Those who insist they are unconnected are invariably apologists for the indefensible; arguing that a gangrenous leg has nothing to do with a healthy arm.

In the coming weeks, as Putin and his fixers bask in the reflected glory of Messi and Ronaldo, it will be pointless to mention the 283 lives lost on flight MH17 shot down by Russian actors; it will be pointless to mention Ukraine; the end of Crimea’s autonomy, or Russia’s sponsorship of Syria’s murderous regime.

It will be pointless to ask why Putin’s domestic opponents are silenced, often in the most final way.

As Putin assured the world during the Sochi Winter Olympics that there are no homosexuals in Russia it might be pointless to ask about gay rights.

It might be pointless too to challenge Putin and his high-testosterone nationalist supporters about the Baltic states cowering under a cloud of Kremlin imperialism — an imperialism kept in check as a boycott would, or at least should, follow any pre-World Cup transgressions.

However, these offences pale compared to the charges that Russia’s hidden hand guided Trump to the White House. They pale compared to revelations that a leading Brexit campaigner was a conduit for Russian funds.

But most of all they give the lie to the West’s grand talk of principled opposition to a mafia state’s predations.

When he smiles his permafrost smile on Thursday, Putin will know the real contest is already over and that he has won.

He has the support of a dupe in the White House and he knows that a Europe that has let its military capacity fade away to 1930s irrelevance can do nothing to stop him.

Once again, our wilful complacency may, as it did after the Munich games, present us with a catastrophic bill.

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