BBC Could Have Been More Critical of Russia During 2018 World Cup, Its Commentator Says

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Europe|The BBC should have spoken out more about Russia during the 2018 World Cup, its soccer commentator says.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/23/world/europe/bbc-russia-world-cup-gary-lineker.html

Gary Lineker, a former England player and prominent TV presenter, said the broadcaster made a “mistake” that it would learn from in Qatar.

Gary Lineker, a former soccer player for England, recently discussed the BBC’s coverage of Russia during the 2018 World Cup.
Credit…May James/Reuters

Isabella Kwai

The BBC should have spoken out more about Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its human rights record when the country hosted the World Cup in 2018, said Gary Lineker, the broadcaster’s prominent soccer commentator.

“I do look back four years ago and feel slightly uncomfortable,” Mr. Lineker, a former star soccer player for England, said in a BBC interview that aired on Wednesday. Mr. Lineker, who is the face of the BBC’s coverage of this year’s World Cup in Qatar, said the 2018 programming, of which he was a key member, had been an example of “sportwashing,” because the presenters had not properly reported on Russia’s record outside soccer.

The top scorer at the 1986 World Cup, Mr. Lineker declined to host this year’s World Cup draw, a high-profile event that in essence kick-starts the tournament. It was a turnaround from his position ahead of the last World Cup, where he presided over the event in Moscow.

His decision this year prompted criticism from some sections of the British news media. Mr. Lineker decided not to headline the 2022 event, saying it would be hypocritical for him to do so given his misgivings over holding the event in Qatar.

“We’ve seen what Putin’s done subsequently — but he’d done it before,” Mr. Lineker said in the interview, referring to the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, and the country’s annexation of Crimea, which was condemned globally and prompted the imposing of international sanctions against Moscow. The annexation led to calls for officials from FIFA, world soccer’s global governing body, to reconsider hosting the tournament in Russia, but the body stood by its decision.

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British ministers and members of the royal family boycotted the 2018 event after a former Russian spy was poisoned on British soil.

The question of whether politics can be removed from global sporting events like the World Cup has been the subject of heated debate. After Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, FIFA suspended Russia and its teams from all competitions, ejecting the country from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

The BBC’s commentators discussed human rights issues in Qatar in coverage ahead of the tournament’s opening game on Sunday. The decision not to do so with Russia in 2018 was a “mistake,” Mr. Lineker said.

“Looking back now in hindsight, I think we should probably have spoken out more,” Mr. Lineker said of Russia’s record beyond sport. It was something, he said, that the BBC and its sports presenters had learned from.

The BBC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

American investigators and FIFA itself have said multiple FIFA board members accepted bribes to award Qatar with hosting rights for the World Cup. Russia has also been suspected of buying votes during its bid for the tournament.

Thousands of migrant workers have died in the process of building Qatar’s new stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure projects, according to human rights groups. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, prompting L.G.B.T.Q. fans from other countries to stay home. For fans who have traveled to Qatar, laws in the strict, conservative nation mean that displays of public affection or gestures that are considered rude could land offenders in jail.

On Monday, the captains of seven national soccer teams were forced to drop plans to wear “One Love” armbands, which promote diversity and inclusion, after FIFA said they would be penalized.

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