Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson is calling on Russia to declare the World Cup a "World Cup of Peace."
"A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about an international campaign supported by dozens of humanitarian organizations seeking to declare the Russian World Cup a 'World Cup of Peace,'" says Branson in a blog post published Tuesday. "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."
Sport has an unrivalled power to bring people together and inspire the values of respect, integrity and unity.
The ongoing civil war in Syria grew out of a peaceful uprising against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011. The conflict has evolved into a years-long war that has reportedly left hundreds of thousands dead while creating tension between foreign allies of Syria's government — including Russia and Iran — and a U.S.-led coalition of over 60 countries aimed at stabilizing the region.
An agreed upon "truce" during the global soccer contest would give civilians living in Syria a break from the fighting and relief organizations an opportunity to deliver aid without navigating conflict, Branson argues.
"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 organizations would be able to provide relief without risk," Branson writes. "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."
The World Cup officially starts Thursday and is being hosted by Russia. The next World Cup, in 2022, will be held in Qatar, while FIFA announced on Wednesday that North America will host the 2026 World Cup, with the United States, Mexico and Canada each hosting games.
There is historical precedent for calling a truce during global sporting events, Branson says in his blog post, pointing to the Olympics in ancient Greece.
"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," Branson says. "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."
Branson supports the idea of a "World Cup of Peace," but he also says he wants to be careful not to make light of the horrors of the Syrian war by calling for a truce during a sporting event.
"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," Branson says. "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."