Did Robbie Williams ′sell his soul′ to Putin? | Music | DW | 14.06.2018
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Did Robbie Williams 'sell his soul' to Putin?

Soccer fans are in a frenzy for the World Cup kick-off, but the opening ceremony is dividing many. British singer Robbie Williams has reaped harsh criticism from his fellow citizens. DW revisits his career in pictures.

British pop star Robbie Williams sees performing at the opening ceremony of the World Cup as an honor: "Something like this happens and you pinch yourself," he told press agency Reuters. "I'm pinching myself again... And I just don't want to get too overwhelmed because I know how big the stage is."

However, some people think he should be pinching himself even harder.

British politicians and activists have railed on millionaire entertainer Robbie Williams for agreeing to perform at the FIFA World Cup opening ceremony on Thursday. They urged him to follow the lead of global players as well as the royal family and refuse to attend the event.

Bill Browder, a British businessman turned human rights campaigner, who reveals his experience in Russia in the best-seller Red Notice: How I Became Putin's No.1 Enemy, tweeted: "There's lots of ways to make money @robbiewilliams, but selling your soul to a dictator shouldn't be one of them. Shame on you."

Heading up the global Magnitsky justice campaign, Browder is a former client of Russian anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death while in police detention in Moscow in 2009. His arrest in 2008 and subsequent death triggered international media attention as well as inquiries into fraud and human rights violations in Russia.

Read more: Late Russian whistleblower's lawyer injured after falling from window

The Guardian also noted other damning remarks by Labour MP Stephen Doughty, over the singer's intended World Cup performance. "It is surprising and disappointing to hear that such a great British artist as Robbie Williams, who has been an ally of human rights campaigns and the LGBT+ community, has apparently agreed to be paid by Russia and FIFA to sing at the World Cup opener," he said.

He won't 'party like a Russian'

Robbie Williams' press crew has declined comment on the criticism. Williams, however, has sung at private parties thrown by affluent Russians in the past.

He told Reuters news agency that he enjoyed visiting the country. The Guardian reported that he had said he was "happy and excited" and to perform at the opening, and that it was the "fulfillment of a boyhood dream."

Williams' 2016 song "Party like a Russian" reaped criticism from some Russian listeners, who chose to overlook the tongue-in-cheek attitude in the song lyrics about an oligarch: "Alleviate the cash from a whole entire nation / Take my loose change and build my own space station."

Williams has said that the hit was not about Vladimir Putin. "It's more of a Monty Python-esque kind of humor. I'm not mocking anybody. It's just a pop record," he told Reuters. Still, he also said that he would avoid performing it at the World Cup opening ceremony. 

Robbie Williams - Opening act at World Cup 2018 (Reuters/M. Shemetov)

DW's sports commentator was glad that the act was "a mercifully short 14 minutes"

Speaking out?

In a statement, FIFA said it was eager for the opening show, inviting fans to "party with us in Russia … for an unforgettable show."

Russian soprano Aida Garifullina will join Williams in the opening music extravaganza ahead of the first match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Russia is eager to use the soccer event to demonstrate that despite Western sanctions imposed over its annexation of Crimea and its role in a rebellion in eastern Ukraine, it is a top international player.

The organization Human Rights Watch has urged world leaders to refrain from attending the opening event, pointing to Russia's human rights record and its involvement in the Syrian war.

"We certainly see the way the Russian government and President Putin is using the World Cup and in particular the opening ceremony as a way of legitimizing his power and his authority," the group's director for Europe and Central Asia, Hugh Williamson, told Reuters news agency.

"We'd be happy to brief (Williams) on the human rights situation in Russia ... so that he's well informed when he gets there. He could also make a positive contribution if he speaks out during his visit," Williamson said.

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