Friday, May 18, 2018

There are 27 days until the World Cup in Russia, where we’ll see some truly interesting characters perform, and miss others.

  • Bad dating advice from the Argentine federation.
  • My favorite Brazilian to be replaced by my new favorite Brazilian.
  • Peru’s captain Paolo Guerrero banned after all for tea.
  • Saudi referee accused of match fixing will miss the World Cup.

Authoritarian home-field advantage.

Russia is an awkward World Cup host. It’s at war with its neighbor Ukraine, the government supports the villainous regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, relations with the West are the lowest since the Cold War, and President Vladimir Putin is contemptuous of basic rights, including freedom of the press.

The Russian government this week denied a visa for the World Cup to German investigative reporter Hajo Seppelt because “he was included on a list of unwanted visitors.” Seppelt helped expose Russia’s Olympic doping, which was deeply embarrassing for Putin.

Moscow relented after FIFA and the German foreign minister intervened. Seppelt can attend the tournament, but Russian investigators said they’ll pick him up for questioning once he lands.

Russia is a tough place for journalists, especially Russian reporters. Some have been prosecuted, beaten and even killed for their work. Foreign journalists are watched, sometimes harassed and persistently thwarted by a system that is allergic to transparency.

“The hardest thing is getting answers,” said Miriam Elder, the world news editor at BuzzFeed and a former Russia correspondent for The Guardian and AFP. “Power is held so closely there, getting anything new or real beyond what they want to tell you is very hard.”

Though most foreign journalists traveling to the World Cup care more about Paul Pogba than Putin, soccer is no less sensitive a topic than politics.

The government doesn’t want you to read about doping, hooligans, far-right nationalists and corruption. Like the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Putin will use the World Cup to burnish his image at home and abroad.

The tournament has been held in authoritarian countries before — Mussolini’s Italy in 1934 and Argentina in 1978, during the junta. Then, as now, the leaders tried to use the spectacle of the tournament to project confidence and mask deep domestic faults.

“I think Argentina was the first World Cup for which the domestic political situation was an issue,” said Keir Radnedge, a veteran soccer journalist who has covered 13 World Cups.

He described a palpable anxiety before the 1978 tournament, when people feared the Montoneros, a leftist guerrilla group, would carry out bombings against the dictatorship.

“Against that — or maybe because of it — all the Argentinians you met on the street, in the cafes, in the bars, were thrilled and excited about the World Cup,” Radnedge said in an email. “Maybe it was the escapism from the grind of a difficult daily life.”

The junta leaders counted on Argentinians’ enthusiasm to distract from the the dark machinations just below the surface.

Radnedge recalled that the media bus route from downtown Buenos Aires to the River Plate stadium went past the Navy Mechanics School, where it turned out the junta was torturing and killing thousands of people.

He remembered typing out his match report for World Soccer magazine after the Scotland-Netherlands match in Mendoza when Jorge Rafael Videla, the leader of the junta, brushed by him.

“I saw a tall man with a moustache in a long gray overcoat walking up the stairs,” Radnedge recalled. “A couple of acolytes were following him, but there was no big security, no gun-toting bodyguards, no secret service with wires in their ears. Just him.”

Argentina’s eventual victory enabled the junta to solidify power and hide atrocities behind a swell of national pride.

The current Russian team’s chances are bleak compared to the ‘78 Argentina side. But the host nation’s enthusiasm will likely cause politics to retreat during the games, and Russians’ fervor could embolden Putin, much like 2014. Two weeks after the closing ceremonies in Sochi, he completed the annexation of Crimea.

It probably won’t matter much to most fans watching events in Russia 90 minutes at a time.

“For TV watchers it doesn’t matter where a World Cup or Olympic Games is being staged,” Radnedge said. “A football match on TV looks much the same from anywhere.”

But the atmosphere of a game or tournament can be expressed in the play, I think. I remember clearly the pride on display in Germany in 2006, and the optimism of South Africa in 2010. The energy of Brazil was evident four years ago.

What will we remember from Russia 2018? And what does the 2022 tournament in decidedly un-democratic Qatar hold?


RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

How to pick up Russian girls if you’re Argentinian.

The Argentine Football Association apologized Wednesday for material it said was erroneously printed in a guide for players, coaches and staff going to the World Cup. The guide included a detailed, eight-point plan on how to score with Russian chicks.  

Apparently, they like men who are “clean, smell good and are well dressed.” They do not like “to be viewed as objects,” and they “hate boring men.”

The AFA said in an official statement that the sexist (and daft) material was not meant to be included in an educational guide prepared for the team, but it never really explained how the mistake happened other than to say it was an “involuntary error.”

Read Deadspin’s translation of “What to do to have a chance with a Russian girl.”

Dani Alves is not going to the World Cup, but he is still one happy motherfucker.’

That’s what one of the most positive, enthusiastic Brazilian players of all time said about himself after he damaged ligaments in his right knee playing for Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup final last week.

Alves said he knew when he went down that he would miss out on Russia. “I only cried one time, when I was by myself,” he wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “And let me tell you something — I don’t want anybody to cry for me. I don’t want anybody to feel sorry for me.”

Alves’s injury opened a spot for Corinthians right back Fagner, who showed himself to be just as exuberant a character as Alves in this video of him and his family listening to the announcement of Brazil’s World Cup roster.

Read Alves’s heartfelt essay in The Players’ Tribune.

German stars' awkward embrace of Erdogan.

Mesut Özil and Ilkay Gündogan were slammed for their apparent embrace of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in what the chief of the German soccer federation said was a manipulative political move by Erdogan.

It was a little uncomfortable seeing two icons of Germany’s pluralistic and supremely talented national team seemingly endorse an autocrat who is antagonistic to German democratic norms. The images were shared on Twitter by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party.

The players, both of Turkish descent, met Erdogan on his trip to London this week and gave him signed jerseys from their clubs. Gündogan’s Manchester City shirt said, “For my honored President, with great respect.” Erdogan, who has consolidated power and manipulated the constitution to maintain his influence, is campaigning for re-election.

Reinhard Grindel, the German federation president, said on Twitter that he respects the players’ background, "but football and the DFB stands for values that Mr. Erdogan does not sufficiently respect. Therefore, it is not a good thing that our internationals have let themselves be exploited for his election campaign stunt."

Read more about the diplo-soccer dispute in The Week.

Paolo Guerrero also will miss the World Cup.

Peru’s leading scorer had his initial doping suspension reinstated when the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Monday that he “did bear some fault or negligence” for drinking tea made from coca leaves that a Lima hotel waiter served him. It’s a common enough Andean beverage, but it also shows up like cocaine in a drug test.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Guerrero’s lawyers had succeeded in getting his one-year ban cut to six months, which meant he could play in the World Cup. But the World Anti-Doping Agency appealed Guerrero’s appeal, and the court in Switzerland imposed a 14-month ban.

Guerrero said in a statement Monday that he was “living in dark times.” He has consistently said he did not use illegal drugs or seek to artificially enhance his performance.

Read The L.A. Times article about anger over the decision in Peru.

Saudi referee banned for match fixing.

Saudi Arabia’s football federation has banned for life the one Saudi referee who was to participate in the World Cup. The referee, Fahad al-Mirdasi, 32, apparently confessed to trying to fix the King’s Cup final last week in Jeddah.

“The federation said Mirdasi sent WhatsApp messages to a top official from Ittihad club seeking payment to help them win against al-Faisaly in the final match,” wrote my friend Ahmed Al Omran, The Financial Times’ Saudi correspondent.

Mirdasi was replaced before the match, which Ittihad won, 3-1.

Read the list of match officials for the World Cup.

There’s been plenty to banter about, and more to come.

Read previous emails in which we banter about the absurdity of soccer fandom, sticker collecting and the pitfalls and promise of video review, among other things. And remember to share The Banter with a friend.

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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