How do you cheer for a country that kills its citizens?


In the first round of the World Cup, there is a phenomenon called “the Group of Death,” which refers to a grouping of four teams that are roughly equal. It’s “deadly” because even a talented squad will have a tough time advancing to the next stage when facing so many similarly skillful competitors. In 2014, to my horror, England found themselves in such a situation, competing against Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Of course they got knocked out.

This year’s group of death features Poland, Senegal, Japan and Colombia, all of which are impressive and somewhat evenly matched. But I’ve been thinking about another group: the one I’ve taken to calling “the human rights group of death.”

When Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were drawn to play against one another, it was difficult to imagine a cluster of countries with more brutal governments — even by the grim standards of 2018. Under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has massacred protesters and disappeared dissidents. The Russian state doesn’t just kill journalists at home; it seems to assassinate opponents abroad, too. Saudi Arabia beheaded almost 50 people in the first few months of this year alone.

“But this is football!” you might cry. “Sports are for escapism! The World Cup is a chance to set aside these joy-killing facts for 90 minutes at a time.”

I get that. When teams are playing with an exhilarating style, it’s easy to look away from wider political issues. But even then, there are moments that bring you back to a chastening reality.

When Russia scored its first goal against Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s opening match, President Vladimir Putin leaned across the lap of FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, to shake hands with Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammed had recently completed a tour of the United States, during which he was hailed as a reformer. When he got home, he oversaw the arrest of activists who had campaigned for an end to the ban on women driving. Mr. Putin has spent the past month pretending to be oblivious to calls for the release of Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker currently on hunger strike in a Siberian jail. Watching the two leaders pal around in the V.I.P. box, it was difficult for me to think of much else.

Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are, of course, not the only human rights violators in the world. (I’ve been reading about Donald Trump’s detention camps for children.) But it’s uncommon for their leaders to have gleeful photo opportunities on so grand a scale.

That being said, I see no contradiction in cheering on Mohamed Salah’s Egypt as its attack bears down on the goal and criticizing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt for incarcerating Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist and writer. There is far more to a country than its regime. In Salah’s case, we see a face of the nation that is bold, positive and hopeful, and any steps these players take as ambassadors for progressive causes should be applauded.

A country’s football team can be a projection of soft power. But I also think it can be something beyond that. It can be a beautiful vision of a nation as its citizens would like it to be, a sign of what can be achieved when people of disparate backgrounds toil together for the greater good. And with work and luck, that imagination can become reality.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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