Unease. Every time I saw her now, I felt unease. She had been so beautiful once, so attractive. I had loved her once. But now that I saw her with Vladimir Putin, it felt as if she was cheating on me. As if she had never really been mine, had always just loved the man with the most power and money.
Russia had been awarded this World Cup back in 2010, together with Qatar getting the 2022 tournament. In the intervening years the Qataris had received most negative attention, the Russians had pretty much stayed in the clear. Yes, there had been problems with Russian hooligans at Euro 2016 in France and people feared something similar might happen now, but compared to Qatar, Russia didn’t seem so bad.
At least, that’s how it appeared at first glance. If you took the trouble to look a little closer, you could see a trail of prosecution of journalists, politicians, activists and homosexuals. Democracy was nothing but a façade, their president influenced foreign elections and they probably shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Shortly after this last disaster, a delegation of FIFA met up with some prominent Kremlin officials, eating cake and cracking jokes. When Gianni Infantino turned out to be best buddies with Vladimir Putin, I could no longer give the FIFA-boss the benefit of the doubt.
My days as a journalist were now behind me. After the World Cup in Brazil I felt like Buitenkant Voet couldn’t be different from all other football media and make money at the same time. Our tone of voice and angle weren’t suitable to reach a larger audience, I thought. And I felt the same about journalism in general: the stories I wanted to make weren’t commercially appealing enough for the media. And I probably just wasn’t good enough either. So I decided to switch careers. When the 2018 World Cup approached, I was teaching Dutch at a high school in The Hague.
The World Cup’s opening ceremony had never interested me much, but this year I watched it. Robbie Williams gave the TV audience the middle finger during his performance, but afterwards he quickly claimed it had nothing to do with politics. Then Vladimir entered the picture and I felt for the first time the unease that wouldn’t let go of me until after the tournament. I don’t remember what he said during his speech, but I still know how I thought: he’s depicting Russia as a much nicer country than it is, and nobody can contradict him. Nobody in the stadium even dared to boo him, as had happened to Rousseff in Brazil.
I didn’t manage to really enjoy the World Cup. And believe me, I tried. Months before the tournament, I started collecting Panini stickers. I watched almost every match and followed all the cool football accounts on Instagram (which didn’t question Putin’s propaganda at all). With my brothers and friends I argued about matches, goals and who would win the tournament. I competed in two different World Cup predictions (and lost both by a country mile). Still, the love for football from 1998, 2002 and 2010 never came back. The obsession from 2006 and 2014 were gone as well. And the Dutch didn’t qualify, so the ‘oranjegevoel’ couldn’t brighten my tournament either.
The nicest thing about this World Cup was how I could watch it at work, in an empty classroom, during off hours. Not livestreaming on a projection screen like my own teacher had done in 2010, but secretly so my colleagues would think I was just correcting some tests. The tournament that had once fascinated me, had become nothing more than a lame excuses to not do any work. Cheap entertainment, an escape from reality.
But it even failed at that, because my entertainment was punctured time and time again by strange fascinations which I couldn’t ignore. The many empty seats in the stadiums for example, I loved those. The entire world could see how little Putin’s showpiece interested the Russian people. It was a pity the regime solved this problem after a couple of matches, when the stadiums suddenly seemed filled to the brim, at least on television. Furthermore, at the host nation’s matches I kept wondering if their players were on performance enhancing drugs, my suspicion growing after each match. It was a nagging concern I normally only had while watching cycling, my other favorite sport. But now Russia had managed to give me the same feeling at football. Unease.
Even the final, the biggest football event in four years’ time, was all about unease, even though the football itself was extremely spectacular. The high and low point of this tournament was Pussy Riot’s heroes running onto the pitch and one of them hugging Kylian Mbappé. For a brief moment I thought this act of bravery would shatter Putin’s entire plan, shaking the world into recognizing the Kremlin for the criminal gang it really was. But directly after, I realized how this moment wouldn’t be on the front pages and how the activists would disappear into some prison to never be seen again.
All in all, I couldn’t love my sweetheart anymore. She still had the same qualities she’d had before, when I had fallen in love with her. But back then, I had been blind to her ruthlessness, her callousness, and her lies. Or had those traits just become worse throughout the years? However, her whims ruined our entire relationship. I had given her one last chance, but she hadn’t taken it. I had no other choice: I had to let her go.
Leave a Reply