Someone recently shared with me photos of Ukrainian soccer fans, cradling soccer balls or draped in scarves of the national Ukrainian team. At first glance, theyre your average sport fans.
Theyre not though. Because the men are missing feet and arms, lost while fighting Russian aggression in Ukraines east. And the boys and girls? All fatherless. Killed in action in the same conflict.
For them, the World Cup is bittersweet. It allows them to escape their brutal reality for a moment. But how can they bear to watch matches hosted by the nation responsible for their new shattered lives? And see people celebrating in the streets of Moscow when their hometowns have been reduced to barely more than rubble.
When friends told me they were attending the World Cup, I informed them of the death toll of the now four-year conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed fighters in the east –more than 10,000 people. One friend admitted he had no idea the war was still raging. I imagine many Australians dont, given media coverage petered out after the crash of MH17 and our geography keeps it neatly out of sight.
The point at which sport and politics collide is a long contested argument. The World Cup brings people together and transcends politics, right? But the behaviour and values of Russia are in complete opposition to the spirit of the World Cup.
Yet it seems the best we can do to slap Russia on the wrist is for nine countries to announce a diplomatic boycott. Thatll teach Vladimir Putin. But imagine if global brands declined to sponsor this World Cup. And no one turned up to watch. That would hurt.
Last month, following a joint international investigation, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull concluded the Russian government was legally responsible for its part in the shooting down of MH17 in Ukraine in July 2014. Which makes Russia responsible for the killing of 298 people who were on board, including 38 Australians.
Russias other strikes include human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria and Georgia, the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, Western election meddling and chemical warfare in Britain and holding Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia – including filmmaker Oleh Sentsov. Yet this is all glossed over because hey, its football.
In its guide for host countries bidding for the 2026 World Cup, FIFA states the event “will catch the eyes of the world like never before. Our duty is to ensure that these eyes look in the right direction; towards indisputably deserving hosts”. It certainly shirked this duty for 2018.
Lydia Dackiw is a director of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations.
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