On Thursday, the FIFA World Cup, one of the world’s greatest sporting events, will kick off in Moscow, with the opening match between Russia and Saudi-Arabia. To be honest, I’ve never been much of a football fan, but I appreciate that few sports have the same universal appeal as what they call “the beautiful game”. And it’s a unifying force unlike any others, with an amazing capacity to bring people together in excitement and joy.
Football stirs the passions of millions of fans, whether it’s the big professional leagues of Europe or a pick-up game in the streets of Nairobi, on the beaches of Rio, or in a backyard in Beijing. While it is often a highly competitive affair, it also builds bridges and crosses divides, as in the case of ex-combatants of Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war, who found that organising football matches between former enemies aided their reconciliation.
As the national teams of Russia, the host nation, and Saudi-Arabia prepare to lift the curtain on this year’s cup, I’m reminded that global sports event also mark an opportunity for the world to put differences aside and join hands as one human family, united in friendly, peaceful competition. That was the vision of Baron Pierre de Coubertin when he founded the modern Olympic Games, a vision that dates back millennia. In the ancient Greek Olympics, this period of peace was known as the Olympic Truce: a period of up to three months when all warfare ceased, legal disputes were suspended and no executions were carried out.
A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about an international campaign supported by dozens of humanitarian organisations seeking to declare the Russian World Cup a “World Cup of Peace”. Given Russia’s role in the ongoing Syrian conflict, I think that’s a fantastic idea. More than 300,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million have been forced to leave their homes since the last World Cup in Brazil in 2014, and an end of the conflict is not in sight. But a “World Cup Truce” would allow scores of civilians suffering under daily bombing raids and relentless shelling to find some respite. It would allow many others to move out of firing zones. Humanitarian organisations would be able to provide relief without risk. And perhaps, just perhaps, warring parties would find a way to talk about a lasting solution to this conflict that has been devastating to beautiful Syria and its amazing and diverse people.
While sport has the power to bring people together and inspire universal values, we cannot take this power for granted. There is often a risk that sporting events could be used as a whitewash, to mask atrocities and human suffering in parts of the world where people can only dream of being able to enjoy football in safety. If the World Cup is to be harnessed for good, we need people to around the world to spare a thought for those people – in Syria and elsewhere – who will not be able to enjoy the World Cup since they will be preoccupied with their daily struggle to survive amidst war.
In the spirit of the World Cup, I think it would send a wonderful signal if Russia were to support this idea. Let’s turn the FIFA World Cup into what it should be: a festival of nations committed to a peaceful and better future for all, not a Cup of Shame marred by the suffering of millions.