From Russia with Pride

Game of Our Lives, the football podcast from Al Jazeera, is covering the goals, triumphs, tragedies, and politics of the 2018 World Cup

    After two weeks of end-to-end spectacle, the World Cup is nearly out of the Round of 16 and it has the penalty shots to prove it.

    Russia has defied the odds and kicked its way into the quarter-finals thanks to an unlikely win over Spain.

    "You play within the limits of the players you have and they did an absolutely brilliant job in containing Spain," says Tony Karon, co-host of the Game of Our Lives podcast. "It was a great defensive display."

    It was also, as host David Goldblatt says in the latest episode of the show, "peak tiki taka rubbish" from The Red Fury.

    "One-thousand-and-ninety-six passes in search of a goal mouth," says Goldblatt. "I mean, rarely have I seen so much possession so pointlessly and unimaginatively squandered."

    Open play aside, the match culminated in penalty shots. 

    "When it comes to gut-wrenching narrative, unjust twists and turns, and just sheer entertainment, you really can't beat extra time and a penalty shoot-out," Goldblatt says.

    Russia won 3-4 on penalties, and mass celebrations soon followed. Fans took to the streets, blasted the subwoofers on their cars, and consumed copious amounts of alcohol in a rare and truly wild party. Meanwhile, the police relaxed a bit.

    It's the kind of moment that demonstrates just how much the rules can bend for the beautiful game. But how long can the holiday policing last?

    In a new episode of Game of Our Lives, Goldblatt talks to Piara Powar of, FARE - an organisation fighting racism and discrimination in global football - about the group's efforts to create safe spaces for minorities and the LGBT community in Russia. They discuss whether or not the country's attitude of tolerance will last beyond the tournament's end, and look ahead to issues surrounding Qatar 2022.

    Goldblatt and Karon also cover their top World Cup moments, past and present, and discuss what makes a World Cup game truly great.

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

    David Goldblatt: Piara, you're in London right now but you're just back from Russia and some time at the 2018 World Cup. Tell me, on the street, how does the World Cup feel to you?

    Piara Powar: Well, David, it feels very good, actually. There's a lot of people out in the streets, a lot of people congregating in ways in which you never see in Russia in normal times.

    Goldblatt: You've been to Russia before, this is obviously not your first time, how does the feeling of public space - and the way the police and the authorities shape that - how is it different?

    Powar: One of the things that we've noticed is that the state has stepped out of the way, seemingly. You have a sense of a World Cup taking place - an international event. This is not the normal Moscow that I'm used to seeing. The streets are more crowded, they're more colourful, much more diverse of course. But the police and the authorities are just letting things get on. Just roll along, and you know, we keep being told by Russians that this is a special period, and it certainly feels that way.

    Goldblatt: And do you get big public viewing areas in Moscow? Because back in 2008 certainly - when they did fantastically at the Euros - that was the last moment that Russia exploded around its football team. I wonder, are they allowing that as they did in 2008?

    Powar: Yeah, that's happening. The biggest Fan Fest is over by Moscow State University. It's quite big. In Moscow, it's been incredible that there's a spontaneous outpouring. My colleagues around Russia say there are similar things happening, but perhaps not to the same extent. But also then you consider, you know, that some of the cities that are playing host were also closed cities under Soviet regime, so they're very unused to visitors, historically. Who knows, this could be some kind of awakening for the people that - I don't know where it will go, but it certainly is a very interesting dynamic that we're watching quite carefully.

    Goldblatt: Can you tell us a little bit about the diversity houses and what you've been getting up to in those?

    Powar: We have two spaces in St Petersburg and Moscow. And the idea here is that we celebrate diversity in football, create a safe space for minorities and for the LGBT community. And we've tried to cover topics that are familiar to audiences in Western Europe. So, the diversity of players, women's football, and so on, but we've also gone places where I think the Russians will feel uncomfortable, which is to celebrate the LGBT community in football such as it is. And, we also then looked at LGBT sport in Russia, which is definitely not what most Russians want to hear about. And yes, we haven't had any adverse reactions. We haven't had any provocations as the Russians like to put it. The houses haven't come under physical attack. The St Petersburg house was closed down in a sense that the landlord withdrew his permission for it to exist the night before opening.

    Goldblatt: Forgive me Piara, that's a pretty standard move in my experience by the Russian authorities - is the press landlords. I'm really interested to hear how that conversation went on the phone.

    Powar: Well, it was a conversation with our local coordinators who were told suddenly that, 'No, the space doesn't exist for you'. So we then held tight for a while. You know, tried to sort-of work out the best way forward here. The guys locally in St Petersburg found a new space, so we knew we had another option, and then we got FIFA involved. FIFA made some inquiries and when we realised that actually the new location was safe, we opened up again two or three days after. So, it meant a delay of two or three days. It was an interesting shot across our bows I would say, a reminder of what we're dealing with beneath all of the surface gloss.

    Goldblatt: Interesting to hear that FIFA responded so positively and by the sounds of it quite quickly. I sense in this sort of microzone they actually have a little bit of leverage over the Russian authorities.

    Powar: Yes. Well listen, I would say that FIFA have a lot of leverage. It's a question of how they use that leverage.You know these are some of the questions they were asking about Qatar and what they'll do there particularly in terms of LGBT laws.

    Goldblatt: What questions are you asking about Qatar 2022?

    Powar: Well, of course, there's lots of questions here about migrant labour - the kafala system. That in many ways FIFA is clear that they've addressed. Certainly for the building of infrastructure that they're responsible for. The train stations, hotels, and so on is another question. And so we're quite clear that there are still abuses going on in those spaces. But for us the big issue is the fact that Qatar bans homosexuality. You can be sent to prison if you're caught in a homosexual act. Now for us FIFA should be saying to the Qatari authorities: 'We are bringing a huge entity to your country. It is going to benefit you, it is benefiting you already in terms of brand building your country. We want you to defer those laws for at least the period of the tournament.' And the Qataris, there's no question they would do it. They need FIFA more than FIFA needs them at the moment. And who knows, maybe they would continue or there'll be a reframing of the laws. But that's the sort of leverage we think FIFA has and should be using.

     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


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