Last night, Russia was kicked out of the World Cup. When the Croatian player Ivan Rakitić scored the winning penalty, the public here in Senegal uttered a joyful cry of satisfaction. I was watching the match in front of a large screen located in the Dakar’s Sacré Cœur district. I could not expect that reaction. The Senegalese public was mainly supporting Croatia, not Russia. It was not easy to explain, given the fact that both are “white” teams, whose countries have no specific historical relations with this part of Africa. Then, I think I finally understood something. Croatia is a small country, not an empire, a small country like Senegal, and that was a good reason for supporting its players.
Until a few days ago, I had followed this World Cup at a distance, mainly for political reasons. I can’t stand the abusive misuse of sport competitions which authoritarian regimes such as contemporary Russia are accustomed to perform. You might remember the whole story of doping practices by Russian athletes at Olympic Games. This year, the International Olympic Committee’s decision to invite 168 Russians to compete at the South Corea’s Winter Games under a neutral flag, despite the country’s massive state-sponsored doping programme in Sochi four years’ ago and the continuous attempts to manipulate test results, has caused a scandal. In authoritarian regimes, sport is more than ancient Rome’s policy of panem et circenses, it is about manipulating international relations and using peaceful competitions for cynical purposes.
Do you know that Russia over the last two weeks has been bombing one of the last areas controlled by the Syrian democratic and non Islamist resistance in the region of Deraa? What an astonishing coincidence. The new attack, after the destruction of Eastern Ghouta (April 2018), began on June 18, four days after the opening of the World Cup, with the consent of Russia’s Putin, in one of the “de-escalation zones” that were negotiated for by the US, Jordan and Russia last year. Soon after the beginning of the operations, Russian warplanes joined the attack, while the International Community was consciously silent and the public distracted. At least 320,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Deraa province and move most of them toward the Jordanian borders and the Golan Heights. As a matter of comparison, this is twice the number of arrivals of illegal migrants to Europe by sea in 2017.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, on July 5, in less than 22 hours the regime’s and Russia’s air force carried around 870 strikes! Deraa was the cradle of the nonviolent and democratic revolution of the Syrian people. In February 2011, a group of schoolchildren drew graffiti and political slogans against Al-Assad on a wall. Twenty-three of them were kidnapped and tortured. When their parents begged the Syrian authorities to have their children back, the chief of Security forces, Al-Assad’s cousin, replied that they will never have them back, and said: “Forget about your sons, and consider having new children. If that does not work, you guys shall send your wives to the police station to be impregnated by the Security forces”.
Seven years passed away since then, and Syria has broken apart. Russia’s support to Syrian dictatorship, which has forced half of the population to quit the country, and caused hundreds of thousands of casualties, has been decisive to prevent people’s democratic aspirations to become a reality.
We should be aware of that when we watch football, if we still have some humanity left. Authoritarian leaders function by repressing the freedoms of the ones, and exploiting the indifference of the others. Another thing one might not know is that, while the World Cup circus runs the show, a new law has entered into force in Russia. Since July 1, telephone companies and Internet are obliged to keep record of all communications for at least six months and deliver them to security services, should they request it through a Court order. The law covers the contents of communications, as well as the metadata about who was contacting whom, and when. Even the international public around the World Cup is therefore affected by that. The so-called “Big Brother Law” is part of a package of reforms known as the “Yarovaya laws”, co-authored by conservative United Russia’s lawmaker Irina Yarovaya. In 2016, when the law was discussed by the Russian parliament, 100,000 Russian citizens submitted a petition asking to abandon the new surveillance law reform, but they failed in stopping the legislative process. It will now be easier for Russian authorities to silence political activists.
Sometimes, the cynical thirst for power and force brings the oppressor to have fun with the pain of the oppressed. It is so that during the Deraa bombing, forces loyal to al-Assad begun making fun by publishing social media messages and news such as: “This is our ‘World Cup Deraa’. We just get rid of our enemies”. Or the Syrian special forces exchanging messages with the Russian colleagues of the Hmeimim air force base in the style of: “Hey guys, we are advancing here in Deraa. Sad about Russia having lost against Uruguay, but Russia will win the World Cup”!
Welcome to the World Cup 2018! How can we watch matches with the same pleasure and quietness, knowing what happens in Syria and inside Russia? Football, however, is an unpredictable science, and things can turn upside down. Like yesterday’s elimination of the national selection of the Russian Federation by Croatia, which covers just the 21st position in the average FIFA world ranking.
Football can show the beauty of human contradictions and energies. Take Belgium. When Belgium finally won against Brazil, last Friday, the Senegalese people at Sacré Coeur’s screen got mad. Normally, the Brazilian Seleção has fans everywhere, but here in Dakar people feels that Belgium is a kind of African team. Naser Chadli, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembélé, Romeru Lukaku, Derdrick Boyata; at least one third of the Belgian players are originally from Africa. And if we talked about France, we could even say that two thirds of its players are originally from Africa! It is like an unexpected magic virtuous circle: these players are redeeming their people and their families’ dignity by recovering the honour of former colonial powers’ national teams. And these former colonial powers are showing to a confuse Europe, squeezed between the challenge of migration and xenophobic nationalisms, how beautiful sport can still be, and how beautifully it can beat dirty, race-based, inhuman or imperial politics.
For these reasons only, I still watch this World Cup, and I hope that one of those semi-African teams reach the glory of human enterprise.
Dakar, July 8, 2018.
 Bethan McKernan, “Syria civil war: More than 320,000 people flee fighting in Deraa in ‘largest displacement yet’”, The Independent, 6 July 2018.
 The arrivals by sea in 2017 were 172,301 (UNCHR Mediterranean situation, 2018).
 SOHR, “About 2300 air and ground strikes target Daraa province in 22 hours of insane shelling and the regime forces expand their control to more than 60% of the province”, 5 July 2018.
 These are not his exact words, but a reconstruction of mine, elaborated on the basis of the testimonies I have collected from Syrian activists and journalists.
 David Meyer, “Russia’s ‘Big Brother’ data law now in force: Kremlin spies are the big winners”, ZDNet, 2 July 2018.
 See “مونديال روسيا في درعا.. مباريات باللون الأحمر” (Russia’s World Cup in Deraa… Games stained with red colour), Al Jazeera, 27 June 2018.