2-7: From Russia With Pride

[00:00:01] David Goldblatt: Welcome back to Game of Our Lives. I'm David Goldblatt and I don't know about you but I don't know what day of the week it is. I am completely exhausted. I'm emotionally ragged. This World Cup has given us everything we could possibly ask for on the pitch. And with me to process the madness of this week is once again Al Jazeera's Tony Karon and our producer Raja Shah. Gentlemen, are you guys surviving the marathon? 

[00:00:27] Tony Karon: Well as you say emotionally pretty exhausting, David. 

[00:00:30] Raja Shah: Still standing. 

[00:00:32] DG: I find at the risk of being irredeemably analog, I'm reminded of those great old black and white Hollywood movies in which the camera focuses on a paper desk calendar and the pages fly off it increasingly and whirr through the air. And that's how it feels as every game passes by and flies into this kind of great confusion of paper and meaning around my head. Talking of which Tony, out of this whirl of games what has stood out for you this weekend in the round of 16? 

[00:01:03] TK: Well you know the operatic dimension is always served by Maradona. You talk about old black and white footage, I'm reminded of James Brown concerts where he would literally die onstage, be carried off and be brought back on resurrected. 

[00:01:16] DG: Oh if only Diego could dance like James Brown then we'd really be doing something good. 

[00:01:22] TK: Exactly. But you know seeing Argentina put out of their misery was fantastic. I mean I think it would have been a travesty had, had Argentina managed to scrape through that one. 

[00:01:32] DG: Yeah they do have a way of you know being really bad. And yet for all that they scored 3 goals in that game. I mean it was like how did that happen? 

[00:01:42] TK: They did. And you know I think France took their foot off the gas a little towards the end but I don’t think there was ever any doubt as to where that game was going. You know I think the hype of the World Cup of like it's Messi versus Neymar versus Cristiano Ronaldo. We know this is not a game that individuals can transform on their own in the main. An individual in the moment, absolutely. But on the whole this is a team game and it's about who they've got around them. It's about Messi looking up and he can't see Iniesta and he can't see Suarez because he's not playing for Barcelona and this Argentina team just doesn't cut it. 

[00:02:18] DG: I thought it was extraordinary looking at the stats on how little he's actually run. He's constantly you know just pacing around a tiny area running a couple of kilometers and just waiting for the ball that never never never comes. 

[00:02:32] TK: Except well well okay we have to ask the Jorge Valdano question as well I'm sure you saw that great op ed he did in the Guardian a couple of days ago where he's really questioning the obsession with statistics of how many yards a player ran. It's like well were those runs any use? How many touches a player had, he kind of notes Mascherano had the most touches but who did he pass the ball to? Because the center backs had the next most touches, which meant that's what he's doing with the ball. 

[00:02:57] DG: What about France Tony I mean you say Argentina don't look like a team. So did France look like a team? 

[00:03:02] TK: They looked more like a team I mean particularly N'Golo Kanté and Paul Pogba at the center of that midfield finally came good and did what they're there to do which is take charge, control the game, prevent the other team from playing and then you have the marvelous Kylian Mbappé and- 

[00:03:19] DG: Oh man wasn't he good. 

[00:03:20] TK: He was amazing and you could see from the first run, that gut busting run where he wins the penalty. It’s like this guy is unplayable today. Now we have to caution the media that is looking for the next Messi, that's looking for the next Ronaldo. Like don't go there with Mbappé. Mbappé is brilliant, but that said it's a team game. We would not have seen that of Mbappé if Pogba wasn't on his game if Kanté wasn't on his game. 

[00:03:46] DG: Do you think the same logic applies to the Uruguay Portugal clash? 

[00:03:50] TK: I mean the great thing about Uruguay watching them is they play like a club team when they attack. I.e. a team of players who have played together for years. They know one another's runs. That opening goal where that series exchange of passes from Bentancur to Suarez and Suarez diagonal across to- 

[00:04:07] DG: Cavani. 

[00:04:08] TK: Edinson Cavani at the far post the most brilliant piece of athleticism. That's what you see in a club team. People who know each other's runs they can anticipate and from the center backs to the twin strikers to a really solid midfield Bentancur was amazing. That's a team and they could go a lot further. 

[00:04:25] DG: We got a lot of nice open play in both of those games but 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 shootout and we've had two of those so far. Croatia Denmark, Russia Spain. Which was the penalty shoot out that had you behind the sofa Tony? 

[00:04:50] TK: Basically the penalty shootout is a more elaborate form of a coin toss. It's a more interesting visual spectacle than a coin toss but that's really what it is. 

[00:05:00] DG: What are you saying that you know skill is no determinant of who wins? 

[00:05:03] TK: No it's skill-. 

[00:05:04] DG: No, or that holding your nerve for want of a better football cliché is not part of what determines who wins a penalty shootout? 

[00:05:12] TK: No it's-. 

[00:05:13] DG: Is it really just a crapshoot? 

[00:05:14] TK: It's kind of a crapshoot because it depends on a number of factors, it's choices made by goalkeepers, choices made by players. It's a contest no question. It's not for ordained, it's a real contest. But it's kind of like in basketball if you settle a game by basically a series of free throws. That's not the same as measuring the balance of the two teams. It's a different contest. 

[00:05:34] DG: Yeah man but a free throw, there's no one standing in front of you. You can't compare a free throw with a penalty man. I mean a free throw you haven't got Kasper Schmeichel screaming in your face jumping up and down when you take it. 

[00:05:48] TK: No question it's most it's far more entertaining than a free throw competition and it's far more entertaining than a coin toss. But at the end of the day all bets are off when it goes to penalties. The relative strength of the two teams means absolutely nothing. Which is what you saw with Russia. I mean Russia was really poor compared to Spain. But you know fair play to them they dug it out. I mean this game should have been done in Volgograd because it really was like Stalingrad you know it was like basically hanging on doggedly and being the last team standing. 

[00:06:17] DG: Everybody went with Volgograd. You know I'm I'm thinking there's too much carnage in Volgograd and then you've got the Battle of Kursk afterwards. I'm thinking this is more the siege of Leningrad, right. Three years without the explosive breakout afterwards. I think we need a little bit of more second world war scholars to come in here and say what is the appropriate Soviet siege with which to compare this. Tony you say though Russia weren't that good. 

[00:06:46] TK: I mean they were great defensively. 

[00:06:47] DG: Really, was Spain that good? 

[00:06:47] TK: No. 

[00:06:48] DG: This is- we've reached peak tiki taka rubbish. 

[00:06:49] TK: Absolutely. 

[00:06:51] DG: I mean 1096 passes in search of a goal mouth. I mean rarely have I seen so much possessions so pointlessly and unimaginatively squandered. You have to say in the face of that weren't the Russians just really smart and unbelievably disciplined and just like on point? It's sort of almost remind me, wash my mouth out with soap, of watching a kind of José Mourinho super well drilled defense that's prepared to concede two thirds of the field and say right, get past this wall. And ugly as it was, and you know I was not enjoying it was bringing me pain, you have to take your hat off and say pretty good stuff. 

[00:07:34] TK: Absolutely. You play within the limits of the players you have and they did an absolutely brilliant job in containing Spain. I mean it was a great defensive display no question. For Spain the existential crisis posed by going backwards, because remember del Bosque's game was progressive possession. There's a point to possession there's a point to the passes. You're changing the geometry of the opposing defenses in order to create spaces to pass through. And this just wasn't and you felt really bad you looked at Koke and and-. 

[00:08:04] DG: Busquets and all the guys in the middle are struggling and then you think hey, you've got Diego Costa. Horrible ugly mean Diego Costa why don't you boot some balls up to him in the box and see what happens? I mean it worked well enough against Portugal. I thought why are you taking this dude off? You’ve got to do something different. You don't have any other mean bearded characters from frankly straight out of central casting. 

[00:08:32] TK: Let’s talk about that for a moment though because this tiki-taka game has kind of produced these midfield artists but they’re not producing a lot of top drill strikers anymore in that Spanish national setup which has to be a worry. But I want to change the subject for a minute to something that's kind of annoying me about this World Cup which is that everybody is just too bloody well-behaved. That is really- where are the handbags? I mean where's the moment where the punches are being thrown or about to be thrown. Where is Diego Costa doing his burlesque, his carnival bad guy stuff making a defender's life miserable? It's like none of that it's all squeaky clean. 

[00:09:08] DG: Didn't we have a touch of that in Panama England and Tunisia England? I mean Panama certainly for the first half played pretty mean. I mean not Diego Costa mean but pretty mean. I also wonder whether the referee, I mean there's a sense that the assistance and the VAR is making people think twice. 

[00:09:27] TK: It must be because in that Panama game and maybe this is again my Liverpool bias coming out, but Steven Gerrard — big and hard on the field would not stand for that. He would pick one of those Panama players and he would let him know with a very physical telegram that that is not on and he's going to protect his players. 

[00:09:46] DG: Yeah no well I don't see those kinds of NHL style enforcers around in this World Cup and we mourn their passing. 

[00:09:54] TK: We do.

[00:09:55] DG: Raja, what's been happening in your World Cup life? 

[00:09:58] RS: Well I mean people haven't been particularly well behaved around here as well. I've been watching all the games at the office and I will say ever since our last episode people have just been yelling the word dude at me in their best David Goldblatt impression so congratulations on that. 

[00:10:11] DG: At least they're not singing Liza Minelli to you. 

[00:10:15] RS: So anyway. I hope you're happy. 

[00:10:22] DG: The one nailed on undisputed winner of this World Cup is surely President Vladimir Putin. Man he must be rubbing his hands with glee as the whole world becomes increasingly obsessed with this tournament. Unable to concentrate on anything else. However here at Game Of Our Lives, obsessed as we are we are going to keep concentrating on what's happening off the pitch as well as what's happening on it. One of the biggest issues before this World Cup is what would be the experience of Russia for people of color, and LGBT fans. Russia has been a pretty uncomfortable place for both groups. 

[00:10:59] Racism has been widespread in Russian football and LGBT people have been systematically discriminated against. In recent years Russia has even passed a law banning gay propaganda as they call it to minors, and there is no doubt that there's been an increase in hate crimes against the LGBT community in Russia since then. There's perhaps no one better to talk about all of this than our guest today Piara Powar. He's the executive director of FARE, a group that is fighting racism and discrimination in global football. At the 2018 World Cup they created diversity houses. These are meant to provide safe spaces and educational workshops that celebrate diversity and football. I caught up with Piara on Skype last week to hear the latest.  

[00:11:51] David Goldblatt: Piara you're in London right now but you're just back from Russia and some time at the 2018 World Cup. Just tell me, on the street, how does the World Cup feel to you? 

[00:12:02] Piara Power: Well David it feels 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. 

[00:12:14] DG: So 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? 

[00:12:26] PP: Well one of the things that we've noticed is that the state is- 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 colorful 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. 

[00:12:53] DG: 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? 

[00:13:11] PP: 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. I mean 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. 

[00:13:46] DG: Can you tell us a little bit about the diversity houses and what you've been getting up to in those? 

[00:13:52] PP: 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 the LGBT community. And we've tried to cover topics that are familiar to audiences in Western Europe you know. 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 definitely not what most Russians want to hear about. And yes you know 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. 

[00:14:46] DG: 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. 

[00:14:58] PP: 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 realized 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. 

[00:15:36] DG: Interesting to hear that FIFA responded so positively and by the sounds of it quite quickly. I sense in this sort of micro zone they actually have a little bit of leverage over the Russian authorities. 

[00:15:50] PP: 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. 

[00:16:02] DG: What questions are you asking about Qatar 2022? 

[00:16:05] PP: Well of course there's lots of questions here about migrant labor, 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 for three months or more 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, you know 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. 

[00:17:14] DG: There's a balance here isn't it. There are some really serious problems still in the world and in the world of football in particular. But there is something about shining a bit of global attention. What's the balance of positives and negatives for you at the moment from the World Cup? 

[00:17:29] PP: Well at the moment the positives outweigh the negatives because we've been able to use this tournament to address some of the really difficult issues that Russian football faces. Particular around far right fans. Some of the racism that's endemic in Russian football, the levels of nationalism, this whole sort of idea of the role that the far right plays in Russia, their relationship to the President and ruling clique's in the Kremlin. Well it's been interesting having a relationship with Russia in the last sort of six or seven years because it's changed a lot. You know we've gone from a Russia that was engaging with the Western world in the Obama reset relations stage, to a Russia which is now incredibly nationalistic, is developing its own perspective on the world which is backed up in places like Syria with military action. It's been very clear with its allies as to the action that it wants to see them taking in support of Russia. So it's a very very different place a very difficult place to operate if you are of a progressive mindset and you are Russian. But you know all of that I think in the end I would say it's positive, it's allowed us to, we hope, change some things to create some legacies and then also to see what follows afterwards. You know we know these big mega sporting events don't always leave positive things. Let's see where this is in five or six years time. 

[00:18:52] DG: I'm just going to add on a personal note as someone who reads your reports on a regular basis, the work I think that FARE has done on racism and anti-Semitism and ultranationalism in Russian football has been extraordinary and a shout out to all the very brave FARE observers who have gone to these games and put themselves in really really difficult situations with very difficult people to report the truth. So Piara Powar thank you very much for joining us. Good luck with your return to Russia. I hope to have you on the show again. 

[00:19:29] PP: Cheers David. Always a pleasure. 

[00:19:31] DG: You can find out more about FARE at farenet dot org. That's F A R E N E T dot org. There's a lot of useful information out there including how to report instances of abuse and discrimination in football. We'll be keeping an eye on how open Russia remains, not just for the rest of the World Cup, but also afterwards when all the TV crews have packed up. But for now the TV crews remain and there is still television to watch. 

[00:20:00] (What to Watch bumper plays). 

[00:20:06] RS: All right so today's what to watch is a little unusual. We’ve still got some round of 16 games to play but we also know some of the quarterfinal match ups so let's get right to it. David what are you especially excited to look out for over these next few days? 

[00:20:18] DG: Well I'm obviously really excited about the England game but I am not going to put the book on it as we say in Yiddish. I'm going to stay shtum and say nothing and move smartly on to the prospect of Russia vs. Croatia. Is Vlads gonna finally show up? We know he was there for Russia vs. Saudi Arabia and watched a lot of Russian goals and the Saudis got a good kicking, but in the Round of 16 you know which nobody expect them to make, where is he? Where is Putin? Now they're in the quarter finals, can he resist? Dare he be there knowing what the meaning of defeat might be? I'm really interested to see who from the Russian state is going to show up at that game. What about on the pitch Tony? What do you actually fancy football wise? 

[00:21:04] TK: The game I'm looking at football wise is very much France and Uruguay. Two teams that have started getting going that are finding their rhythm. They're finding- they're starting to play to expectation and you could see either of those teams going all the way to the final. The whole world should be sweating on the fitness of Edinson Cavani. If he is going to be fit the Suarez, Cavani, Bentancur triangle is very very dangerous. That said France's defense is very very strong. You'd back France to edge this but Uruguay are the great scrapper. I mean they really are this team that really defies expectations. 

[00:21:38] RS: So I’ll just say as we’re recording this there’s yet another fantastic game unfolding. Belgium has just pulled even with Japan in the second half and actually it reminds me of something that I’ve been meaning to ask you guys — ever since Tony said a few days ago that Argentina France was the best game of the tournament so far, which is what are your picks for best World Cup games period? Not just of this tournament, but your all time favorites. 

[00:22:01] DG: OK I'll start. Give you a little moment to think about it Tony Karon. I'm going to go rather bizarrely with Argentina England 1998 round of 16. Famous for Diego Simeone brilliantly winding up David Beckham who then flicks out with his boot and virtually just grazes Simeone’s ankle gets himself sent off. And I choose it because it is just riveting. Riveting! You know you could not take your eyes off it. It was one of those games that just somehow after about 40 minutes I could just see everything that was going on because I was so inside it and the narrative turn of it and the tension of it was so fabulously great. 

[00:22:47] TK: Excuse me. Wait wait wait. How do you talk about that game and not talk about the 17 year old Michael Owen lighting his name on the world stage with that absolutely brilliant goal? 

[00:22:56] DG: Do I sense a certain amount of Liverpool solipsism on your part. Mr. Karon? 

[00:23:00] TK: Unapologetically so. 

[00:23:05] RS: Tony what about you? 

[00:23:06] TK: Well OK I could choose a game I never saw except on YouTube. 1962 Chile Italy the Battle of Santiago where the police have to come onto the field four times to stop fighting. So OK I'm not really being serious although that was, that was a fun spectacle. 

[00:23:21] DG: No we’d all- oh you know the blandness of the modern spectacle it would be nice occasionally as you say for people to be slightly more badly behaved. 

[00:23:29] TK: It so, my probably my favorite game if I'm thinking back and this is really a heartbreaking game. The 1982 quarter final between Italy and Brazil where you have this absolutely marvelous Brazilian team playing the most brilliant gorgeous attacking football not really ever worrying when they concede because they always know they're going to score three more than their opponents. And they come up against an Italian team that really embodies the virtues of Catenaccio an Italian game that's all about locking things down and occasionally making a break. The Italians go ahead. Brazil equalizes with one of my favorite ever goals. I mean Sócrates on the blind side of the Italian defense he squeezes the ball inside the near post of Dino Zoff - the most one of my favorite ever goals and you know once again Italy go ahead in an act of complete naivety by this Brazilian team that thinks nothing of passing a ball square across its defense. And you know sure enough Paolo Rossi says thank you very much and he puts it away and Italy wins that game. And it's almost like it's the end of flair minus steal.

[00:24:32] DG: And on that note I think it's time to wrap up. We don't know what awaits us but I'm pretty damn sure it's going to be good. So, hang in there, keep focused, we've got about a week and a half to go. This show is a production of Al-Jazeera's Jetty Studios recorded at the Sound Town studios in Bristol U.K. with music from Bang Data. Subscribe to the show if you haven't already. Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like it please leave us a review. Let the people know. Follow us on Twitter at Game of Our Lives. And the final duty of the show as ever remains to just say, thank you very much Tony Karon. 

[00:25:15] TK: Tell no lies claim no easy victories. 

[00:25:19] DG: Thank you very much Raja Shah. 

[00:25:20] RS: Thanks David. 

[00:25:23] DG: I'm David Goldblatt. And we'll see you on Friday.

[00:25:26]DG: Well then you need to say that Raja. I think you just did.

[00:25:28] RS: I think I just did.

[00:25:31] DG: Were you recording on your end?

[00:25:34] RS: Umm

[00:25:35] DG: I’ve got a couple of pick ups from it. Maybe you could do it again — more energy