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Tuesday 23 October 2018
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From Russia with love?

As far as we know, nobody was beaten up, tear-gassed or racially abused during the World Cup in Russia. Granted, there were a couple of poisonings in England, but what’s a little Novichok between old foes?

Ever since Russia won their bid to host the 2018 World Cup, football supporters, journalists and politicians have assured us things would go badly wrong. But looking back on a tournament of unparalleled drama, wonderful atmospheres, impressive organisation and fans from all over the world interacting with their hosts, we’re left wondering if this was the best World Cup ever.

It has changed Russia’s public profile and could even change Russian society. It has forced us to ask ourselves whether maybe, beneath the spectre of the Putin dictatorship, military conflicts, cyber-warfare, the obliteration of LGBT rights and the casual administering of nerve agents, Russia is just a normal country, with flaws like any other?

Like most people, I had come to see Russia as a monster. From the colonial wars in Chechnya and Ukraine to the military support for the Assad regime, the white-collar crimes of corrupt oligarchs and the disregard for democracy at home and abroad, there is indeed much to shudder about.

I’ve been to Russia, but to a distant now unrecognisable country. In 1994, my family chose St Petersburg – some still called it Leningrad – for an unconventional holiday. We got sun and snow in the same week, saw two Rimsky-Korsakov operas, ate terrible food and were generally received as an oddity, multi-racial as we were, and dressed in grungy clothes. We were welcomed not necessarily impolitely, but with characteristically Russian abruptness.

The abiding memory was of a depressed populace coping with economic hardship. On the escalators that took us deep below the ground into subterranean Stalinesque subway stations, we passed pallid, moribund, unwashed faces. We came back reporting that we hadn’t seen one Russian person smile except for a graveyard attendant who loved that we were visiting the tombs of Mussorgsky, Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky.

It was a great adventure. But lately, as a conscious political choice, I decided I would never go back.

A RUSSIAN woman poses for photos with American students on a foreign exchange program in Russia, holding flags representing their Mexican and Indian heritage, as they visit Red Square during the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow, Russia, Friday. AP PHOTO

After the violence meted out by “trained” Russian hooligans during the Euro 2016 tournament in France, many football fans felt the same way.

Thankfully, not all shared that sentiment. South American fans travelled in their thousands, thronging the stadiums, streets and squares with Peruvian, Colombian and Argentine flags.

Stan Collymore, the footballer-turned-broadcaster, livestreamed footage from Moscow as buoyant Russian supporters celebrated their win over Spain with flag-waving and horn-honking on the expansive boulevards leading to Red Square. Street techno parties went on until dawn.

Collymore later got into a squabble with sports writer Eliot Rothwell. “Here was Russian pride stripped of militarism, removed of toxicity,” Rothwell wrote, suggesting that the collective national joy and freedom in public spaces might never be repeated. “Locals began to wonder why…their everyday experience was not filled with such colour and noise.”

Since he began working for Russia Today – considered by some to be a state propaganda media vehicle – Collymore has passionately set about dispelling “myths” about Russians and their society.

As a mixed-race Brit, he clearly felt at ease walking the streets alone, drawing attention to himself, filming everything on his phone and talking to everybody he met.

Meanwhile, this mixed-race Brit columnist found himself drawn back into an equally compelling love affair that had soured in recent times but was somehow igniting again.

I’ve followed the England team since I was an eight-year-old sniffling on the sofa as we took a Van Basten hat-trick in our pweffen at Euro ‘88. I stayed up late to see Platt’s volley at Italia ’90. I’ll always remember where I was the night we beat Holland 4-1 in ’96. But the 20 years since losing to Argentina at France ’98 have seen a gradual dampening in my enthusiasm. Overpaid players, woeful managers, an inept Football Association and unsavoury supporters have been the hallmark.

In Nice, two years ago, I saw England lose 2-1 to Iceland. I watched the fans heckle players off the pitch and felt that this was surely the end.

But over the course of the World Cup in Russia, the young squad – half of whom are black or mixed race – restored my faith to World In Motion levels.

That New Order song, written for the 1990 World Cup featured a now famous rap interlude by Jamaica-born John Barnes. Twenty-eight years later, England have another hyper-talented Jamaican-born player in Raheem Sterling. In total, five England players have Jamaican roots, two Guyanese, one Kittitian and one Vincentian.

At a time when England is reeling from xenophobia, the Windrush scandal and misguided Brexit-infused notions, what better stage to show that multiculturalism utterly underpins the country’s modern history.

“Love’s got the world in motion,” sang New Order, and thanks to Gareth Southgate’s boys I’m once again singing for England (En-ger-land!).

 

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