Social media has been abuzz since Germany’s shock defeat to Mexico in their opening World Cup match on 17 June.

For Russian spectators, the match yielded an additional surprise that has sparked a flurry of online jokes and memes.

“Navalny football’

Commenting the match live on Pervy Kanal — Russia’s main state-run television channel and the Kremlin’s mouthpiece — journalist Kirill Dementyev said it was time for the embattled German team to adopt a more assertive game plan.

The term he used included the rather uncommon adjective “navalny,” which in this context roughly translates as “forceful” or “high-pressure.”

Incidentally, this adjective is also the surname of Vladimir Putin’s most prominent foe, anti-corruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny, whose name is all but banned on Pervy Kanal airwaves unless followed by a disparaging diatribe.

Dementyev’s fellow commentator, former Russia coach Leonid Slutsky, was obviously not aware of this important editorial rule.

Seizing on Dementyev’s blunder – if it was a blunder — Slutsky jokingly asked about the opposition leader’s skill on the pitch.

“Navalny plays football?” he quipped. “That would be interesting to see.”

After an awkward silence, the two commentators prudently went back to discussing the match.

All fun and (football) games

The pun, however, was not lost on viewers, many of whom took to social media to share their incredulity.

Some, starting with the opposition leader himself, marvelled at the fact that the word “Navalny” could ever be pronounced on Pervy Kanal.

“This moment when censorship fell and I found myself on Pervy Kanal. Well almost,” Aleksei Navalny joked on Twitter.

Others couldn’t resist revisiting previous photos of Navalny, including this picture of him leaving a Moscow jail on 14 June after serving 30 days for organising anti-Putin protests..

.. or this picture showing him being detained by police at an opposition rally.

The incident has been an opportunity for Russians to poke fun at the increasing government pressure exerted on Navalny, who attempted to run for the March 2018 presidential election.

“Navalny football is when you enter the field and the referee immediately removes you from the field for 30 matches,” reads this post on Twitter. “No, Navalny football is when you are leaving the changing room and the referee removes you from the field for 30 matches,” a reader commented.

As for Slutsky, some observers voiced concern for his future as sports commentator.

“Farewell to the fantastic expert Slutsky on Pervy,” joked one tweet.

Slutsky has since announced his departure from the television channel.

“Unfortunately for me, I’m ending my work on Pervy Kanal,” the former coach told viewers after commenting the Russia-Egypt match on 19 June.

Slutsky did not give any reason for his departure, saying only that it was “necessary to start another activity.”

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