Soccer can show humanity at its finest. From the millions that Soccer Aid recently raised for UNICEF to the Christmas truce in World War I — it’s a sport that’s historically brought the world together.

The FIFA World Cup has just kicked off, and there’s a sense that, for at least a fleeting moment, the sport can help us heal some of the tempestuous political divisions that have arisen against a background of staggering global inequality.

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Half the world’s population will be watching (seriously!) — and this year it's being hosted in Russia. Let’s enjoy the theatre of it all, but don’t forget: The World Cup is about far more than football.

Here are some issues to remember.

1. Poverty

In 2014, Russia reportedly spent $51 billion hosting the most expensive Winter Olympics ever in Sochi. It’s been reported that the country has spent a (slightly) more restrained $11 billion this time round, albeit with the highest calculated stadium renovation price per seat for any World Cup this millennium.

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Yet 20 million Russians live below the poverty line — meaning they live on less than 9,828 roubles ($158) per month. And according to a former hedge fund manager in Russia as well as other insiders, many people have speculated that President Vladimir Putin just might be the richest man in the world with a reportedly secretive total fortune of $200 billion — more than enough to personally lift each citizen out of poverty himself.

The World Cup is set to ignite the Russian economy in the short term, but the central bank has warned that inflation may rise with it. Essentially this means that the wealthy may well become wealthier, but local, smaller economies will see little growth. And if prices rise, then poverty will only get worse.

2. LGBTQ Rights

When American Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy kissed his boyfriend on the slopes at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Games, the internet burst with joy.

It was a powerful moment. But in Russia, gay men are allegedly kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Horrific reports have emerged in recent years about “gay torture camps” in the southern Russian republic of Chechnya where parents are reportedly summoned to execute their LGBTQ children. Meanwhile, the local government has even claimed that gay people don’t exist.

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Despite the accusations, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was still able to snap a cheerful photograph this week with Liverpool and Egypt forward Mohamed Salah. The PFA Player of the Year is among the world’s elite players and played in the Champions League Final in May, but came under fire for the photo.

The Egyptian national side have been training in Chechnya to warm up for the tournament.

Chechnya is an extreme example of the wider culture of homophobia that led to a federal law banning “gay propaganda” in 2013. It’s also provoked the British government to advise gay football fans to hide their sexuality in public during the tournament. And before a single ball was even kicked, a gay couple have already been beaten up as they left a taxi in St Petersburg, leaving one hospitalised with brain damage.

Sport wields political power. But it’s also an opportunity to exert pressure; Russia wants international attention, and they should get it — with every eye on how the country treats its LGBTQ citizens.

3. Human Rights

Jailed Ukrainian film director and Kremlin critic Oleg Sentsov has already spent a month on hunger strike, and it’s believed he will die in prison during the World Cup.

Sentsov was arrested in Crimea and jailed for 20 years on charges of arson — which he denies — after Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Now, his kidneys are failing through lack of food as he demands the release of dozens of political prisoners.

But there’s more. Environmental activist Andrei Rudomakha was severely beaten last year after railing against the illegal construction of a mansion for high-ranking officials. Another activist, Igor Nagavkin, has spent years in pre-trial detention, according to Amnesty International, after fighting torture and corruption; while Oyub Titiev was jailed in January for supporting the victims of Chechnya’s crackdown on homosexuality.

These are just a few examples of widespread censorship and intimidation — indeed, about 1,600 people were detained at an anti-Putin protest in May, including the leader of the opposition, as Putin won another controversial landslide reelection.

Amnesty reports that the safety of protestors has only got worse since Russia was named as World Cup host. FIFA has actually had a statute claiming to recognise international human rights since 2016, but whether they'll follow through here is unclear.

4. Modern Slavery

The 2022 World Cup, to be hosted by Qatar, is set to cost even more than this year's; both in the estimated $200 billion it will take to build brand-new stadiums and transport links in a country with negligible football infrastructure, and the human cost of migrant workers trapped in modern slavery.

Qatar’s sponsorship system gives employers complete control over their workers, and 1,200 have reportedly already died in appalling low pay, high-risk conditions. And the construction process is yet to hit its peak — much more is still to come.

What better time than now to speak up in Russia?

5. Racism

England defender Danny Rose has told his family not to travel to Russia.

"I'm not worried for myself,” he said. “But I've told my family I don't want them going out there because of racism and anything else that may happen.”

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The Russian Football Union was fined over $30,000 after fans chanted racist slurs in a friendly match against France in March. Kick It Out, an organisation that fights racism in football, called the fine “pitiful”, and remarked that it had “little confidence” that Russia could effectively deal with incidents at the tournament.

Yet Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov insisted in March that he doesn’t believe his country possesses “racism on a scale that needs to be fought."

"My dad's really upset. I could hear it in his voice,” Rose continued. “He said he may never get a chance again to come and watch me in a World Cup. That was emotional, hearing that. It's really sad.”

“It's just how it is,” Rose added. “Somehow Russia got the World Cup and we have to get on with it."

6. Conflict

Although approximately 10,000 British people are expected to make the trip, you won’t see a single politician or royal family member in the crowd.

British Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed the no-show after Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned on UK soil with a toxic nerve agent in March. UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson was among many who blamed Moscow for the attack. And British pop star Robbie Williams has come under fire after he reportedly accepted a fee worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to perform at the opening ceremony, with one critic saying he’s “selling [his] soul to a dictator.”

And the first match of the whole tournament? It’s Russia versus Saudi Arabia — a country that kicks off the World Cup just 24 hours after launching a devastating attack on a Yemeni city, putting millions at risk of famine. Over 300,000 children are trapped in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, where 30 air strikes were launched in just 30 minutes yesterday, and civilian casualties are set to soar.

It comes just days after the UN called for an investigation into air strikes from Russian jets that killed 47 Syrian civilians last week, the latest in a long campaign of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Over 5.1 million people have fled the conflict in Syria as refugees, and even more have been internally displaced.

Global Citizen campaigns on the UN’s Global Goals, and dedicates itself to the mission of ending extreme poverty before 2030. Peace is important to ensuring the objectives are met — and it’s vital that the whole world works together to achieve it. Take action with us here


Demand Equity

Don’t Forget Human Rights Issues as Russia Hosts the World Cup

By James Hitchings-Hales