England might not find the subject too palatable right now but once the disappointment of failing to land the right to host the 2018 World Cup has worn off there will be an inevitable thirst for knowledge about football in the nation that did emerge from the FIFA vote as the winner, Russia.
There is probably nowhere better to start than the highly regarded Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game, written by the English-born, Moscow-based journalist Marc Bennetts.
It does not paint an edifying picture. Published in 2008, Football Dynamo makes no attempt to romanticise football in Russia, even though Bennetts finds much to admire about it.
There is a strong focus on the problems that beset the game in Russia, with stories of corruption, political interference, violence, racism and financial shenanigans. We learn that corruption is so widespread as to be seen as “just another factor, like home advantage and recent form” in deciding games.
Bennetts argues that there are parallels between football and the state of the Russian nation, suggesting that hooliganism -- another scar on the game -- is merely a reflection of a violent society, that overt racism is hardly surprising in a country that has few black immigrants and that the prosperity enjoyed by the leading clubs mirrors the emergence of an oligarch class whose power lies in money rather than political dominance.
Prominent in this new Russian elite, of course, is Roman Abramovich, a man who Bennetts points out has split Russian opinion. While some applaud Chelsea’s owner for having the financial muscle to wield such influence on football in a western nation, others believe his billions would be better spent on improving the lives of the less fortunate in his homeland, a country where extreme poverty exists alongside vast wealth.
It is not a book likely to convince those left with a sour taste by FIFA’s insistence that the country they chose for the 2018 venue is a fitting host but Bennetts believes the decision can be a force for good for Russian football and the nation itself.
Writing on the Sabotage Times website ahead of the bid decision, Bennetts suggested that to Russians “who have never been abroad (the vast majority)” and to whom black footballers are “truly and utterly alien” the World Cup finals will be a short, sharp shock.
“Russia will be forced to adapt to black fans and sides,” Bennetts said. “It might not be a cure-all, but it will be a start.”
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