Major football tournaments and the othering of Eastern Europe

Khreshchatyk_street, Kyiv, Ukraine

Khreshchatyk street in Kyiv, Ukraine, photo: Wikimedia commons.  Author: Mstyslav Chernov

Yesterday marked the end of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.  It was, by all accounts, an excellent tournament, with lots of goals, exciting matches, a good amount of shocks and relatively good refereeing.  But what interested me just as much was where the tournament was held, the narratives concerning Russia that were created in the West in the build-up and how those narratives developed as the World Cup went on.

Living and working in Poland for the last 7 years but having first lived in the country in 2003, these narratives obviously reminded me of those that circulated before and during Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.  In both cases there was a whole array of articles as the tournament approached which can only be considered as scare-mongering.

All three countries were supposedly hotbeds of racism, homophobia and hooliganism which visitors would be wise to avoid.  The loudest example of this as Euro 2012 approached was the BBC’s ‘Stadiums of Hate’ documentary where Sol Campbell famously said that fans should not travel as they could end up returning in a coffin.  In the build-up to Russia the British media mostly focused on the potential for hooligan violence that had reared its ugly head during Euro 2016 when England played Russia in Marseille.

Of course in the Russian case there was an additional angle which was picked up by Western media – that of geopolitics – something that wasn’t really discussed before Poland/Ukraine.  Russia’s World Cup was always going to be controversial in the aftermath of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and accusations of Russian meddling in the US Presidential Election, Brexit and the attempted poisoning of former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal.

As both tournaments got under way and started to flow there have however been  remarkable similarities to Western coverage of the events.  Instead of the overbearing othering of Poland, Ukraine and Russia there was a general realisation that these countries were not all that different and repugnant as Western media had made out.  In all of the countries the people were friendly (in fact almost overly hospitable at times), they were relatively safe, had interesting food, and in all of these countries you could have a good time.  Suddenly there was a stark questioning of the narratives that people had been sold in the run-up to the tournaments.

All of this drives me to query the Western imagination which seemingly sets out to write articles which almost gleefully seek out the worst in a country and, in the Russian case, to explicitly link the people of a said country with the ruler of that country.  This simplistic othering process does not really happen in the other direction.  If a tournament was held in Britain would there be a whole assortment of articles imploring people not to travel due to a rise in xenophobia in the Brexit-era?  If the World Cup was in the USA this summer would we be told not to travel because of Trump’s immigration policies?  The answer is of course no, and simply underlines where power lies in the world, i.e. it is the West which dictates narratives and how the stories should be told, not the East.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that foreign media should not criticise the worst excesses of governments and societies outside of the West, but surely there’s a space in between where journalists criticise the actions of governments but also attempt to understand the nuances of everyday life in the countries which they are writing about?

One of the principal problems of journalism written about the East from a Western perspective (and this goes outside of the world of football) is the lack of diversity of local voices.  Even if local voices are used, their primary function is to support the story’s intended narrative. When the Sun (or even unfortunately the Guardian in the case of the run-up to Russia) writes about football hooliganism in Eastern Europe the story is often told in a very simplistic way.  You can almost hear the editor in the newsroom saying ‘There is football hooliganism over there, let’s find some people who back up what we already think anyway.’

If there’s any lasting legacy to Russia you’d hope that maybe, just maybe in the future journalists will attempt a little more nuance when they talk about countries which are not ‘terra cognita.’  However, as Western journalists do not seem to have learnt their lessons at all from Poland and Ukraine six years ago, this is probably a vain hope.


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