Everything you don't understand about Russia: World Cup 2018

Game of Our Lives podcast previews the tournament, reports from the CONIFA World Football Cup of unrecognised nations, and welcomes two new co-hosts to the show.

    With a week to go before the 2018 World Cup in Russia, David Goldblatt and co-host Tony Karon turn towards the tournament ahead in a new episode of Game of Our Lives. They share what they're looking forward to and watching out for, both on and off the pitch.

    "Where do I start?" Goldblatt says. "There are so many things on my mind ... It's one of the most politically complex and controversial of the last 30 or 40 years."

    One thing on Goldblatt's mind is former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, who is currently banned from participating in any footballing activity by FIFA. Despite the ban, he's been invited to the tournament by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    "The first thing I'll be looking for is to see whether Mr Sepp Blatter actually shows up," Goldblatt says. "If he does show up, I really look forward to the conflict going on between the FIFA protocol people and the Russians who are running the VIP box."

    "The FIFA secret police," says Tony Karon. "Having watched FIFA close quarters, policing the zone as it were, around the World Cup stadium in South Africa. That one point five-mile perimeter is pretty much FIFA terrain."

    The hosts are joined by Russian journalist Sasha Goryunov, who discusses what the West misunderstands about the 2018 World Cup host country, and answers one of many questions on Goldblatt's mind: does Russia actually like football?

    Lastly, the team heads to the CONIFA World Football Cup, a tournament that comprises teams unrecognised by FIFA, in an all-new weekly segment called What to Watch.

    Read an excerpt from the conversation between Goldblatt and Goryunov below, and listen to the full conversation in the player above. 

    David Goldblatt: It has occurred to me that Vladimir Putin loves to be pictured as a "man of action". We've seen him wrestling animals. We've seen him taking to the ice with professional hockey players. We've seen him conducting serious level judo and karate and taking an ice bath in his y-fronts, but we've never seen him in a football shirt. Does Vladimir Putin actually like football, and more seriously, how much does Russia really like football?

    Sasha Goryunov: It is a country that is, you could say it's not particularly obsessed with a single sport. And when it comes to Putin, his big two passions are judo and ice hockey, and he's notorious for his matches. Also, he's notorious for his scoring - I wonder why. But, a football World Cup for him is an event that, when the opportunity arose, he just couldn't bypass it. So, I think he grabbed it with both hands, and I think, also, the world was a different place in 2010.

    Goldblatt: You say "grabbed it with both hands," Sasha, but I feel like his grip wasn't that strong compared with Sochi 2014, where if you want to tell the world "Russia is back," the Olympics is the way to do it. Football somehow seems to be almost like an afterthought.

    Goryunov: I think it would have made sense to have a great Olympics followed by a great World Cup just to cement your place. Unfortunately, as we all know the Olympics didn't quite work out as he planned, even at the time, because things went south in Ukraine very, very quickly, and those events definitely obscured any Olympic legacy. And then, of course, the doping allegations which totally tarnished Sochi 2014. So, I think now we're at a stage where perhaps the 2018 World Cup can do a bit of face-saving for Russia if they host the tournament well. To return to your original question, "How much does Russia actually love football?" I'm not convinced it loves football that much. If you look at the attendances - 12-13,000 in the top flights. If you look at the general coverage of football - how much do Russians actually watch football? Not that much. The TV audiences for football and ratings. No single percentage figures even for big matches. There was obviously a hike in popularity in 2008.

    Goldblatt: When they do brilliantly at the Euros, and [Andrey] Arshavin is playing well, and you're actually getting public gatherings in Moscow - the way you do in many cities - but for the first time in Russia you get these big gatherings, happy crowds, face painting. Are we going to see that? Or is that just a flash in the pan of a kind of earlier and less crisis-ridden-Russia?

    Goryunov: I think people will still be excited and there will be fan zones. So, I think you will see those colourful crowds; however, I think this time there will definitely be a big effort to put on the show that the country is excited about the World Cup. Unfortunately, the team is terrible. Absolutely terrible. So, it's very hard to get excited about it.

    Goldblatt: My sense is that the public in Russia sometimes can get pretty nasty about these things. If things don't go quite right in the opening game with Saudi Arabia how do you expect the mood to go?

    Goryunov: I think the big difference in 2014 was that there were still some expectations. The performances weren't great, but there was sudden confidence, a certain competence about the Russian team going into the World Cup. Whereas this time there's really none of that. So, I think expectations are rock bottom. To be honest, I think if Russia somehow gets out of the group there will be massive national celebrations because I think this is possibly the best thing they can aim for at the moment. Because certainly on paper, even if you compare them with Saudi Arabia - Saudi Arabia played some fantastic football the other day, and I was sort of looking at them going, "Russia has done nothing like this."

    Goldblatt: So, suddenly that opening game actually has a lot riding on it. If they're going to get out of the group - they're not going to get anything against Uruguay. Egypt, well, we'll see what state Mo Salah is in, but it's quite a challenge. They need to win their opening game. They can't really afford to go out and kind of scratch out a draw if they're serious. How will that play out?

    Goryunov: I think it's going to be a very scrappy game. Possibly the worst opening game of all time - I'm sorry for being so downbeat. But, there is no other way. And maybe, maybe they might scrape a one-nil. Thing is, it suddenly becomes massive that they actually have to win it. And this is the extra pressure for a team that hasn't really shown any glimmers of progress in years.

    Listen to the full episode in the player above, and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

    You can also listen on the Game of Our Lives Facebook. Follow the show on Twitter @gameofourlives

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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