Russia fights an information war on many fronts, yet has lost almost all battles in sports. This ‘absolute war’ takes no prisoners, yet despite two recent defeats, a stunning fan-led victory has light at the tunnel’s end. The ‘Gentlefan’ success shows us what can happen when fans meet.
To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, Sport is a mere continuation of war and politics by other means. It involves the purest human emotions – Agony and Ecstasy; Us against Them; Good versus Evil. The emotions of being part of a larger tribe are intoxicating, dangerous and easily manipulated.
Sporting Civil War
The Yugoslavian fractricide had many causes, yet a 1990 football riot in Zagreb allowed violent Croatian nationalism re-surface and is celebrated as the beginning of their War of Independence.
Having lived and worked for over four years in Knin, Croatia – the centre of two waves of ethnic cleansing – that match has legendary status. Croats at the time felt victimised, then liberated by the actions of some drunken, politically manipulated clowns.
Croatian-Serbs were scared that they would again be hanging from willow trees. Sport in Yugoslavia became a weapon of national destruction, whilst simultaneously building nations.
The commercialisation and politicisation of sporting civil war generates greater profits than regular news.
While news watchers and political correspondents pretend to be relevant in an increasingly polarized political debate, the information battles fought in the sports arena have longer lasting consequences.
And the sports propaganda war on Russia is heating up.
Fear and Loathing in Russia
“I hate Lokomotiv (Moscow),” he said. Why? “Because my Papa tells me to, we’re Spartak (Moscow).” A seven year-old coming out with such crap isn’t cute, it’s pathetic and unless that hatred is directed towards Meath or a Thierry Henry, it is wrong.
Yet love and hate is an integral part of our sporting vocabulary and those two words increase in volume as media (social and mainstream) play on our basest fears to sell adverts and products. And when national media get involved in promoting political ends through sport, it gets very nasty.
Two information battles in recent weeks. Firstly, the reaction to a puerile mockumentary film and secondly, a self-inflicted black mark, typical of Russia in this propaganda war.
The BBC commissioned a cheap and cheerless hooligan porn piece, Russia’s Hooligan Army, that I’m glad I avoided working on. Asked to assist, I declined on two points. One: They weren’t interested in an honest portrayal of Russia; Two: The Director’s background.
For me, you either report honestly or not at all. There is much money to be made in joining the anti-Russia media pack.
Many of those taking foreign pieces of silver are no more committed to proper journalism than those in Russia who failed to counter it, or actually report on issues in a professional manner.
Once I heard the “documentary filmmaker” was Alex Stockley von Statzer I spoke with some contacts and refused.
Erroneously and repeatedly called a ‘journalist’ by Russian media, he made a successful propaganda piece and woke some to a fact I’ve repeated since 2010, that Russia could lose the right to host the 2018 World Cup.
This mockumentary began the scramble to preserve the World Cup for Russia and led directly to the second information battle.
Former Russian National Team Captain Alexei Smertin’s appointment by the Russian Football Union (RFU) as Anti-racism and discrimination Inspector was a great move badly handled.
Fluent in French and English, an English Premier League winner with Chelsea and a sub-three hour marathon runner, and friend of Damien Duff, he’s the perfect candidate, but his appointment was universally ridiculed.
While some articles were harsher than others, even the gentlest hosted a poll asking “Should Russia be stripped of the 2018 World Cup, even at this late stage?”. The ‘Strip Russia’ brigade were dancing to the anti-Russia political tune.
Like the BBC’s mockumentary, the damage was, again, largely self-inflicted. It allowed the painfully biased CNN to vomit negative commentary over Russia and Russians without recognising the irony of embedding an excellent piece of work by Copa90 in their diatribe.
Copa90 explore negative issues in football while achieving the balance major media outlets choose to ignore as they desperately fight for audience and advertisers.
Major media exploits base instincts to divide people, dialogue and cooperation are fearful.
However, this past week they suffered – when people ignored fearmongering and met, making good things happen.
‘Gentlefan’ festival on the Don
Once the UEFA Europa League 1st knockout round pitted FC Rostov (from Southern Russia) against legendary Manchester United of England, I awaited the media scare storm.
Articles closer to the histrionic Guardian review of the mockumentary claiming Putin led the hooligan army rather than a professional review based on intelligent observation and actual knowledge of football.
As with Manchester’s visit to Odessa, in December 2016, to play Zorya Luhansk, their fans were warned of being at risk wearing club colours in Rostov. These standard warnings came from Manchester United to cover the club in all eventualities.
A simple insurance move as the club paid for all fans visas . Naturally normality was ignored almost completely by media to heighten tensions.
Bloodshed and carnage was eagerly awaited by one sports editor who on Thursday morning sent his correspondent a ‘Battle on the Don’ headline suggestion. He hoped for fan war on the streets.
Instead something magical happened. Supporters met, drank, sang, took photos with one another, exchanged scarfs, handshakes, hugs and smiles – it was the ‘Gentlefan’ evolution.
Rostov fans produced t-shirts and blankets for the Manchester United fans (in the visitors red and white), winning acclaim from club and British media. The ‘Gentlefan’ assault did more for Russia, home and away, than some inadequate idiots disgracing the country in France last summer.
For Russia and football, the ‘Gentlefan’ mentality is closest to what adequate people follow sports for – fun, mischief and being part of something greater than ourselves.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Some headlines are misleading and mean for a reason. Playing to the gallery they titillate and generate revenue. Violence, or the threat of, sells.
All the while there is a strain of normality and human decency defying the demanded behaviour. People meeting and interacting breaks down barriers.
Barriers that have been artificially constructed by media, business and political interests for them to remain relevant.
The old guard, whether they be racist or ignorant hooligan leaders, self-appointed civic leaders or simply those with power and/or money, they profit from division and keeping people fearful of one another.
Their interest is moralising on societal decay and the pathetic majority who enjoy pastimes they themselves find repugnant.
Meryl Streep gave voice to this tiny minority’s view at this year’s Golden Globes awards. She used her power to peevishly attack Donald Trump and popular pastimes instead of addressing a deeply troubling situation of pedophile predators within Hollywood.
However, defending child actors won’t win her roles or baubles. Poor Meryl wouldn’t know the difference between a Gentleman and ‘Gentlefan’ in any case.
The light at the end of the tunnel is not a freight train coming our way. It’s a guide to how we can improve things on a social level.
Ignoring the fearmongering of media and political vested interests, we can interact at a personal level and make a real difference, as Manchester and Rostov fans showed through the ‘Gentlefan’ idea.
The FIFA Confederations Cup this Summer and the World Cup next year will mean more than any amount of expensive propaganda, forums or summits. People will meet, interact and barriers will be removed.
The world will finally see in 2018, in the greatest public event of all, that Russians are excellent hosts. Sport won’t just be a mere continuation of war and politics by other means, it’ll be a complete game changer.
The Gentlefan approach shows that united fandom and Russian hospitality will triumph over propaganda and fake news.
The original piece “2018 World Cup Russia bearing the brunt of information war” appeared here.