June 22nd, the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, and moments after the final whistle Steve Hodge, who’d just swapped shirts with two-goal Argentine hero Diego Maradona, has revealed a t-shirt.
Cameras whir and click, the photo of Margaret Thatcher on his torso is accompanied by the words “Our PM is a ride!”. Argentine fans (who’d before the game been battling English fans and stolen their flags) go crazy.
Back home, the media goes into a spin. The Aston Villa midfielder is pilloried as a pillock by readers of The Guardian, as showing heroic patriotism by the Daily Mail against the dastardly Argentine, damned by the Sun for not using a topless photo of Maggie.*
Foreign media question why he is sporting his love for a war criminal whose atrocities stretch from starving men to death in Northern Ireland to murdering injured combatants in the Falklands.
He gets fined by his club, shipped off to have to play with Spurs and UEFA condemn the meddling of a mere footballer in an already volatile political situation.
Fast forward 30 years and in Istanbul last Tuesday night a Russian footballer took off his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with a picture of the Russian President, our friend VVP, with the words “Our polite President” next to it. A far cry from Steve Hodge’s declaration of love, though since Hodge learned his trade under the kissable Brian Clough, it’s not a huge surprise.
Right away the media in Russia went into a frenzy. A fair amount of comment has been humorous and bitingly satirical. Memes of the President with his own tilt of the hat to Dmitri Tarasov have appeared and it was a day or two later before foreign media twigged – mainly because it occurred during a Europa League match. Though Tarasov’s “patriotism” was just one bean in the pot.
Since Turkey shot down a Russian plane over Syria, and followed up by attacking the rescuers, Russo-Turkish relations have been strained. That ISIS’s chief trading partner are also responsible for the mass export of Syrian and other assorted asylum seekers to Europe has been lost a little in the mix due to their partnership with NATO.
However, Russia inflicted huge hits on the ailing Turkish economy by banning tours to Turkey (by sports clubs and regular Josifs) as well as imports of Turkish goods to Russia.
The effects of the travel ban have already been felt in the Turkish resorts who almost exclusively cater to Russians and tied with increased terrorism in the country, Tarasov’s attention seeking patriotism came at a bad time.
Russian patriotism has been steadily nurtured by VVP’s US and US-trained spindoctors. They carefully manage his image and align it with Russia. Case in point my discussion last night with a journalist from a Russian daily.
We grabbed a quick coffee near my place to catch up on all things political, which we’ve done since I returned to Russia in 2010. Covering the political beat he has the normal mix of gossip and jaw dropping fact that keep him filing his stories despite overbearing editorial “guidance”.
We discussed the Tarasov show of patriotism and as he’s a Spartak fan and hates Lokomotiv, he’d a biased take:
“Putin is sitting out in West Moscow happy with this, it keeps him relevant. Otherwise he’s a crazy, mental midget surrounded by sycophants and fools.”
I asked him why he doesn’t write columns on this. Then commented on how closely sport and politics, players and patriotism always are.
“Remember the Croatian footballers giving the pro-Croatia salute, or the Serbian basketball team with Vlade Divac doing the three-finger one? English players Nazi-saluting Hitler, players kissing badges. It’s all a show.”
“But what about the political situation?”
“He’s showing what side he’s on. He sits there playing Xbox all day while his celebrity wife shops, gets her botox shots and goes to the beauty salon, so he has too much time to think and he is just another normal person who believes that without Putin Russia is nothing. Same as at home.”
I’d then to explain what I meant by the same as at home and our own peculiar brand of party patriotism. Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been desperately trying to convince the population that he and Fine Gael saved the country, and they will do so again – by keeping the unreformed terrorists, loony fringe independents and Fine Gael’s blood enemies away from the levers of power.
And there are enough people who will believe him, especially when he has a largely compliant media to support him. Identical in Russia, where one man’s war criminal is another’s a national hero.
A show of patriotism by a footballer who married a Dom-2 (a Russian version of Big Brother) contestant is hardly going to change the world.
He’d the last word on it and I couldn’t answer. If an Irish player in Stuttgart in 1988 had worn a t-shirt under his jersey with a picture of a balaclava’ed sniper and some nice words alongside, what would be the reaction.
Even moving forward almost 30 years, not even James McClean would do such a thing. And I doubt if any of our boys in green will show patriotism this June by having a t-shirt with Enda Kenny or Gerry Adams on it. Yet Ireland is not Russia.
While much of the commentary I’ve seen on Tarasov has been derisory of his patriotism, there is a good lump that has hailed him a hero. When a fine of 300,000 euros was supposedly levied on him by Lokomotiv Moscow, there was outright shock.
The fine has since been denied by his agent and the Players Union. Instead UEFA will take action and do the dirty deed.
Whether it was a show of patriotism or an act of petty attention seeking by a footballer desperate to impress his desperate, attention seeking spouse, we will never truly know.
All we do know is that when you can buy t-shirts in any shopping centre with VVP’s stoic mug on it, and one of the greatest active ice hockey players does the same, and that when you buy two t-shirts you are rewarded for your patriotism by receiving a free iPhone cover, the marketing team behind brand Putin are desperately needed in the League of Ireland right now!
*Events may not have strictly been as written, Steve did swap shirts with Diego, but as for the t-shirt, it may also have read “Sam Fox for PM” or “Paddy Power – Gotcha!”