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Inna Platonova, PhD is the Founder of the Russian Speaking Canada for Peace Ganna Zakharova, MA is a Crimean civil rights activist and an international graduate student at the University of Calgary

While you are cheering Russia’s World Cup 2018

Photo: Poster by the Ukrainian artist Andriy Yermolenko, who created a series of powerful posters dedicated to 2018 FIFA World Cup hosted by Russia

 

Soccer is the world’s game. Soccer transcends our cultural and ethnic differences, language barriers and economic status. Soccer unites us and promotes peace. Not surprising, it is the most popular sport and the FIFA World Cup is the biggest and most watched sports event on the planet. As billions of viewers are glued to their screens cheering their favourite teams and feeling a tremendous sense of pride and passion, families of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 victims outpour their grief before the World Cup 2018 in an open letter to the Russian people:

“[…] a shadow hangs over this event. We are painfully aware of the dark irony that the Russian leaders who will profess to welcome the world with open arms, are those who are chiefly to blame for shattering our world. And that it is these same leaders who have persistently sought to hide the truth, and who have evaded responsibility ever since that dreadful day in July 2014.”

Their children, partners, parents, brothers, and sisters were among 298 people who were blown out of the sky four years ago on July 17, 2014 with a BUK-TELAR missile system that came from Russia’s 53rd Anti-aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit in the Russian army. Despite mounting evidence, Russia continues to deny involvement carrying out a “vile and deceitful campaign” of disinformation. Russia’s leaders also cover up their ongoing crimes against Ukraine, Syria, other countries and against their own citizens both in the territory of Russia and overseas.

 

Photo: Stepan Chubenko, a teenage goalkeeper before being murdered in the occupied territory of Ukraine

 

Like many teenagers, the 16-year-old Ukrainian high school student Stepan Chubenko was a goalkeeper of Kramatorsk’s “Avangard” youth soccer team who dreamt of becoming a professional soccer player. His dream was cut short after he was kidnapped while traveling by train, tortured and violently killed for wearing Ukrainian national colours (blue and yellow) on his backpack. His life, as the lives of so many (over 10,220 to be precise), including hundreds of children in East Ukraine, were shattered after Russia waged a war in the region following Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea. Stepan’s home town of Kramatorsk in the Donetsk oblast became occupied for three months by armed groups initiated and aided by Russia before being liberated by the Ukrainian army. These armed groups are frequently romanticized by Western media as “rebels” and “separatists” while being rightfully designated by Ukraine as terrorist organizations, who with direct military, financial, training and human resources support of Russia, commit grave crimes against civilians.

While the public has enjoyed the World Cup over past several weeks, 14 Ukrainian service members were killed and 68 were wounded protecting liberated towns and villages in East Ukraine. Oleg Sentsov, a 42 year old Ukrainian filmmaker, was jailed for 20 years on falsified charges for opposing the occupation of his native Crimea, and has been on a two month hunger strike in the remote region of Siberian Yakutia, home of the former Soviet Gulags. He is ready to die “until Russia releases all Ukrainian political prisoners”. Volodymyr Balukh, a 44 year old farmer jailed for 5 years for flying a Ukrainian flag over his house in occupied Crimea, has been on a hunger strike for over 110 days and had to be taken by ambulance after his last court hearing. Emir-Usein Kuku, a Crimean Tatar human rights activist, who was severely beaten by Russia’s FSB, is also on a hunger strike as “a protest against the fabricated cases against him and other unjustly accused political prisoners.” The youngest of the 70 Ukrainian political prisoners of the Kremlin is Pavlo Hryb, 19 years old. He was kidnapped in the territory of Belarus and is now denied medication vital to his health.

While more blood is spilled and political prisoners are starving to death in Russia’s jails, a British mother of three died this week after being poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent produced in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the same poison used in an attack of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, and his daughter. But nothing is apparently enough to spoil the entertainment of soccer fans and the media relentlessly trolling the British government online for boycotting the games. How can we pretend this World Cup is just the same as any other major sports event? How can soccer remain outside politics, if the World Cup 2018 hosts are using it for personal and political gains while concealing the countless deaths and destruction left in their path?

A shout out of “Слава Україні” (Slava Ukraini) or “Glory to Ukraine” is a common patriotic greeting in Ukraine, with foreign dignitaries frequently using it to greet Ukrainian delegations. Last year the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau welcomed the Ukrainian team at the Invictus Games in Toronto with “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to Canada!” But according to the Russian government and FIFA, it is a crime for which the Croatian defender Domagoj Vida, who used to play for Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv, is punished with a costly fine and a disturbing warning, while the Russian state media plunged into a new wave of anti-Ukrainian hysteria and hatred. Players are free to shout out Vive la France, n’est-ce pas, or any other patriotic greeting. So the question is why FIFA is bringing aggressor politics and propaganda into the soccer games. World Cup fever turns oblivious fans into victims and willing participants in a colossal propaganda machine by the Kremlin regime, which denies justice to victims and continues re-traumatizing families by spreading constant lies and refusing any responsibility. Many efforts were taken to boycott the Russian bid for the championship by European and other nations, EU lawmakers, various organizations, human rights groups and activists, but it all came down to the decision of a FIFA executive committee of 22 men, many of whom are either banned or under investigation for corruption, with a now disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter sealing the deal. Not surprising, he is a dear friend of Putin, while being suspended from participating in FIFA activities for six years.

Sports have been used to legitimize totalitarian regimes in the past: whether it is the 1934 World Cup hosted by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, the Olympics in 1936 in Nazi Germany, or Soviet Communists using sports as a political tool. What have we learned from the bloody history of the past, if despite Russia’s invasions following the Olympics of 2014 in Sochi, the aggressor was rewarded with the most important soccer event on the planet? Peace in Europe remains daunting, the lives of so many are forever shattered, and the world has been robbed of a global soccer event that was meant to unite.

 

Inna Platonova, PhD is the Founder of the Russian Speaking Canada for Peace

Ganna Zakharova, MA is a Crimean civil rights activist and an international graduate student at the University of Calgary