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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sovereign Football: A Political Fable

Here is a classic Russian situation, from the pages of English Russia: Foreign mail order firms refuse to deliver to Russia because of pandemic corruption, so rather than reform that corruption Russians decide instead to INCREASE the corruption by figuring out a way to fool the companies into mailing a parcel to Russia by intentionally sending it first to a different country. Meanwhile, their society continues to degenerate until it is no more.

Writing in the
Moscow Times, Celeste A. Wallander, visiting associate professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers the following fable on Russian corruption and its ill effects. Will Russia ever learn that they can't get anywhere by cheating and creating the illusion of success? Don't hold your breath.

Once upon a time, there was a bright but slight young schoolboy named Vladislav who, like most young boys, had a strong desire to fit in and, well, be one of the guys. He did well in school and used his brains to good effect by doing homework for some of the tough boys on the playground. This won him their tolerance, but it didn't quite make him one of the guys.

Slava noticed that three of the toughest boys -- Vladimir, Sergei and Igor -- always talked about someday playing in the big leagues. Knowing that the global big league is football, Slava got the brilliant idea that his playground toughs should form a team and become a great football power. The three toughs were intrigued. How better to become rich and famous than to become a great football power?

But there was a problem: While the boys were strong and clever, and could dominate the neighborhood playground in any fight, they had never spent time developing the skills necessary to win at football. They were strong and athletic, but had little patience for passing, foot speed or ball control drills. As a result, when they did play football in the neighborhood, more skilled teams could easily steal the ball, get past their defenses and score. As a result, the young toughs tended to win some but mostly to lose.

Of course, that is the essence of competitive sports, but the boys did not like to lose. Besides, they pointed out to Slava, if we lose on our home turf, we cannot be certain of becoming a great football power, so what's the point?

Slava, being very clever, knew better than to suggest that his new team spend time practicing its football skills to become a better and more competitive team. Instead, he recognized that the reason his tough friends tended to lose the ball and get scored against was because they were limited by the rules of the game to controlling and moving the ball with their feet.

"Just think!" he told Vladimir, "how we will dominate the football pitch if we control the ball with our hands!"

"That's a great idea!" Vladimir answered. "If we use our hands, we cannot lose, and our domination of football at home will propel us to the big leagues!"

And so, the team implemented its clever plan. When other teams would call fouls for using their hands, Slava would argue with them about the rules, while his team members went on scoring goals and declaring victory. Referees who ruled against them would disappear from the neighborhood and be replaced for the next match with friends of the toughs. These friends had been coached to rule that in this form of neighborhood football, the need for order and stability on the pitch meant that Vladimir's team (as it became known) must be allowed to use its hands.

"Besides!" playground supporters exclaimed, "they are on a winning streak and have a chance to make it to the big leagues!"

"Isn't it good for our neighborhood," Slava cleverly argued, "for a team of our own to go undefeated so we can climb into the ranks of the great football powers?!"

And so, Vladimir's team came to dominate football in the neighborhood, and to claim a place in the upcoming great football power tournament. The great football powers were impressed to hear of a new, undefeated aspirant to their league, and looked forward to welcoming Vladimir's team to the competition.

The teams drew lots, and it turned out that the first match would be between Vladimir's team and George's team. You can imagine what happened when the whistle blew and play began: when Sergei, Vladimir or Dmitry ran with the ball in his hands, or used hhis hands to knock the ball away from one of George's players, the referee would call a foul and stop play. Not long into the game, the players on Vladimir's team were being sent off with red cards for their repeated violation of the most basic rule of football: no hands. This went on all day, as Vladimir's team played against each of the big league teams.

The big leaguers were, of course, astonished to learn that Vladimir's team thought it acceptable to play football with their hands. They were nonplussed that Vladimir, Slava and their teammates were unapologetic for their behavior, and were even angry and resentful that the fouls called against them were costing them game after game.

By the end of the day, the controversy reached such a fever pitch that the great football power team coaches called out the new team's coach, Slava, to demand that his team play by the well-defined rules of football.

Slava was defiant. He knew that Vladimir and his team could not win if they played by the rules. They had not trained, practiced, or committed themselves to football. Their dream of being a great football power, and his own of being one of the guys, would fail if they played by the rules.

So Slava stood defiantly and declared to these great powers: "You can define the rules of football however you like, and play only with your feet. We do not mind. Have we ever complained? But as a great football power, we have decided that we are not just playing football, we are playing sovereign football. In sovereign football, Vladimir's team gets to play with its feet, or its hands or whatever it wants. We learned to play football on a tough playground in a tough neighborhood, so this is how we have to play to win. Our fans like it, and we win. You cannot tell us that we are not playing football; we are playing sovereign football."

It was a sad day for the world's "beautiful game," because the other teams did not stand up for the game of football as it had been played in its simplicity for generations of boys and girls. With one prominent team claiming the right to play sovereign football, other teams began to adopt their own rules to do whatever necessary to win. Soon even small children in remote parts of the globe were using their hands to play "football." Some followed Slava's lead by claiming they were playing sovereign football, but in the cynical treatment of honorable sport that developed, some began to use entirely new terms for the strange games that developed. It turned out that back home in the neighborhood where George's team played, the new version of football in which hands were used far more than feet became very popular. They also called it football, which seems strange for a game played hardly at all with one's feet, but this shows you how messed up things had become.

As with every fable, there is a moral of course. But it may not be the one you expect. Yes, one of the morals is that when you have something beautiful that brings out the best in children all over the world, it is best to keep the standards high and the rules and definitions intact. The point of playing football is not just to win, but to train, and practice and truly to play. Sovereign football was not football at all, and those who played and loved the true game -- win or lose -- should have refused to play anything less.

However, the real moral of our fable lies in the ultimate fate of Vladimir's team. It turns out that it was able to win with sovereign football only when everyone else played by the rules of true football. Once everyone started cheating and making up rules as they went along, Vladimir's team began to lose. They were not the only ones who were strong and clever, you see: once other neighborhood toughs could make up their own rules, Vladimir, Dmitry and the others often found themselves bruised, bloodied and bested by even more determined aspirants to the big leagues. Sovereign football escalated to violent contests. I heard that a team once even brought weapons to the playground to ensure their win. Pretty soon, the old neighborhood was so unsafe that none of the children could play there, and everyone knew that it was Slava and Vladimir's team that had made it so.

So, the true moral of this fable is simple: When you cheat, you eventually lose the truly important game.

2 comments:

Seryj Volk said...

"Foreign mail order firms refuse to deliver to Russia because of pandemic corruption", you say. I suspect you've made that up. The Russian postal service may be corrupt, but the site you link to is talking about "USA ecommerce shops", and a lot of them don't ship to other destinations outside the US either, for reasons connected with insurance, customs, and so on.
As for the "fable", well there's a legend that the sport of rugby developed when a pupil at Rugby School in England picked up the ball in a soccer game and ran with it. So I guess that makes Vladimir Vladimirovich the William Webb Ellis (the schoolboy in question) of international politics :)

La Russophobe said...

SERYJ: I suspect you made that up. You certainly give no evidence at all to support your statement, and the term "may be corrupt" in reference to the Russian post office is like saying Siberia "may be cold in winter." Maybe you should devote your time to making it less corrupt rather than attempting to parse the language of this blog in order to find excuses not to do so, as confused Russians have been doing for centuries in regard to criticism.