The dawn of a new year often plays tricks on the mind and memory. We forget what went before and believe we’re starting with a clean slate. It’s not just normal, sensible people, but journalists too.
At 12.11am (Ramon time) my phone buzzed. A Viber message from a colleague in Moscow – “11 minutes in and no scandal – looking like a good year already.” I laughed and raised a glass of Harp Lager to the idea that 2018 would be somehow better for Russian sport than 2017, 2016, 2015 and on and on. The World Cup 2018 countdown was on in earnest.
All change at the mill
In every Capital Sports Show gig, whether in the studio, stadium or pub, the one question that is asked nervously or aggressively, or even dispassionately, is “Will the World Cup 2018 be a success for Russia?” Even at Panel Shows at my College I’ve heard it asked. Football media legend Ilya Kazakov heard it when he appeared in the College for a lecture. Local and foreigner alike want to know.
Will we see English fans meeting their Stalingrad in Volgograd? Will we see emotional Egyptians rampaging in scenic St. Petersburg? Will Saudi supporters find enough food stores providing halal products in Rostov? Endless fears and worries. In the couple of dozen radio and tv pieces I’ve been asked to do since the December 1st draw, questions have been asked about policing, hooligans, price gouging, violence, racism, doping and very little to do with the impact of the event.
This past year since escaping sports nutrition hamster wheel, I’ve been working far more closely with football than even before I gave up the ghost in December 2013. I accept it’s punishment for misdeeds in my past life and also that it’s more fun now than four years ago. It could be the work-life balance or simply that I’m not solely dependent on the most capricious of mistresses (sports) for my daily bread. Or it could be that in the last year I’ve seen the rise of a far more intelligent, progressive and active grouping within Russian football.
The removal of the Smorodskaya regime at Lokomotiv Moscow left the door open for one of Russia’s few true family clubs to do something special. In came a softly spoken, creative gent named Ilya Gerkus and I was cautiously optimistic.
Our first meeting encouraged me, so too did the acceptance that things needed root and branch change in the club. It wasn’t all a success, nor was it smooth as they cleaned house and began orienting Lokomotiv towards a more sustainable club model.
In came ex-Schalke 04 Academy boss Erik Stoffelshaus and a host of actual professionals to run the commercial side. Changes were not meant to keep all happy, yet the club gradually allowed the cream to rise to the top and with Kazakov being appointed the Media Head, Lokomotiv ended the year in 1st place, not just in the table. There are still gaps to be filled and problems solved, though the club is moving in the right direction.
Lokomotiv’s ascent has paralleled the gradual development in Russia’s readiness for World Cup 2018.
Lessons Being Learned
British police officers are here, training and cooperating with their Russian brethren to ensure the highest quality of crowd control, especially removing hooligan threats. FIFA always make sure nothing is left to chance, even with Vitali Mutko’s resignation from the Local Organising Committee. Many rejoiced at the Christmas gift that keeps giving handing in his papers, yet we all know he’s still there as a safe pair of hands.
Even when Seb ‘septic’ Coe stood down from his Nike role to avoid a continued conflict of interests, he was still a good friend of the sports giant. So much so that two years and a month later Nike announced that it was naming one of the new buildings at it’s headquarters after him. Along with Serena Williams, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, ‘Septic’ will forever be linked with the American sportswear behemoth, as Vitali will with the World Cup 2018. After all, it came from his heart.
In line with FIFA policy, Vladimir Putin (VVP) signed into law anti-hooligan laws in April 2017. The effectiveness of these will be improved by close communication between local and foreign policing authorities. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), of which the police forces are part of, are increasingly active. At home they have stamped down on homegrown idiots and forcing football clubs to grow up too. Affiliated fan groups are well and truly infiltrated and monitored, as recent bans and organised fight preventions have proved.
Yet as the Confederations Cup passed off without incident, other than a scumbag taxi driver ripping off a fare, the intensity from English media, in particular, has hit new heights. More anon.
Having just returned from Voronezh on an overnight train, I am well placed to confirm that train travel for the World Cup will be decent. Even in the Moscow metro the improvements are visible with some of the unhelpful signage from the Confederations Cup being altered to make it clearer for visitors.
Lessons are being learned, yet in the final onslaught of 2017, you’d barely know it.
World Cup 2018 – Foul Play
Consider this, if you will. In December 2016 the rhetoric against Russia was so bad that there was a real danger of it losing the rights to host World Cup 2018. The English were desperate to get back their World Cup and everything was being jumped on. Even as locals showed their true side when Manchester United visited Rostov, it was never going to be enough. So in October 2017 baits were put out to be clicked.
Ben Rumsby got out the hankies and gel to warm up. Yet despite the shocking, misleading and downright false headline, as you read the article it turns into an attack on English fans. Home truths are told and you’d fear foreign governments banning ALL English fans given what the bould Ben has written.
Ten days later and English fans were told of restrictions on drink sold in Russia between 11pm and 8am in shops and further slathered English fans for misbehaving. Eight days on and we learn that a 1200-strong “army” of English hooligans will be free to attack Russia. Video of English fans smashing up buildings in Marseille (prior to their comeuppance again fellow idiots from Russia) ties up another shameful article slamming English fans. It’s as if the English media hate English football fans.
Not to worry, as 384 idiots from the host nation will be banned from attending matches or being out and about during this period. Or so we thought, until there needed a new scandal. No worries that there was no truth to the story, that there was no source in Moscow other than a desperate journo looking to get his Christmas bonus, but suddenly banning orders were messed up by a former security officer – VVP.
The Daily Fail went on to quote the Sun newspaper, who had made “inquiries” in Moscow. Those are three articles based on 1. A single unnamed source, 2. In actuality there was NO source, 3. Information to the opposite, 4. A need to bait clicks.
I know this as I was asked by a freelancer to confirm the assertion, I checked it out with sources who have never failed me, reported back that it was nonsense and then as called upon by local media to explain why English media were telling lies about Russia – yet despite the stories being debunked, no retractions, sanctions or apologies have been issued. There was no desire for the truth, it was a two footed tackle to ensure maximum hype and hatred.
Eighteen months ago when I wrote tongue in cheek about the French mayhem I was slammed by some of the same journos who slopped out the lies and nonsense listed above. Seems that playing pocket pool in the hope of violence on the streets in Russia is the only thing that’s kept them going this Winter. And they’ll keep the clicks well baited with ‘scandals’ related to World Cup 2018 and doping.
I figured I’d get at least to the end of the first week of the New Year free from more manufactured click bait headlines, though we didn’t make it to the end of the third day. All that hope we had at 12.11am on January 1st is only a faint memory.
World Cup 2018 is the target that keeps providing the clicks to keep the news cycle on spin. It’ll be a long 6 months until we get to the Luzhniki in June!