When the photos started arriving from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, I had a flashback.
I’ve seen those guys, the ones in the leather jackets who emerge from the crowd, filled with venomous purpose.
A few days later it hit me. Moscow in 1986. Church.
We were there for the Goodwill Games, the Ted Turner sports jamboree, one of the great events I have ever covered. Crazy Ted, wandering around Moscow, the holy fool, screaming about saving the elephants. The city, warm and gentle in high summer, hospitable if threadbare in the time of glasnost. Older Russians getting tears in their eyes when they talked about the suffering in World War Two.
My wife and I decided to go to church one Sunday morning, found a neighborhood Orthodox church, still open under the terms of Communism.
There was incense, singing, a ritual up front, while in the back, older worshippers, mostly women, moved from corner to corner, bowing their gray heads reverently, kissing icons of their beloved saints. We were taken back to another time.
The mood matched the feeling we received out in the street. While I worked at sports events, my wife took municipal buses to lavish circuses in distant neighborhoods. Old ladies appointed each other to watch out for her, made sure she got off at the right stop. We had also seen the old ladies brandishing umbrellas at traffic police who displeased them. This was their city, their world, still. Now, in church, in the heady cloud of incense, they prayed and kissed the icons.
Then, a few young men materialized, wearing dark leather jackets in summer heat. Three or four of them meandered through the maze of icons and paintings, but not reverently, not at all. They stared at the worshippers, moving among them, nothing physical, but most intimidating.
People ignored the thugs. I felt, well, I am an American, they might not want to menace me. In my pocket was a press badge that said: Игры доброй воли. I can still read it in Cyrillic and pronounce it. Goodwill Games. My wife and I stayed close to the thugs, spoke to each other in English.
I have no idea if we affected them in the slightest. There was no recognition. They sauntered through the church, and left by a side door.
I had not thought of them in decades. (I think more about Chernobyl, which had taken place a few weeks earlier, and still casts its poisonous shadow on the world.)
But when the photos emerged from Crimea and eastern Ukraine recently, I felt a twinge in the pit of my memory. Putin kisses icons now. It’s a different time. Thugs still emerge from the shadows, thrusting their shoulders and elbows around.
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.