Russia’s World Cup: The Politics In Review, Two Years On

Nearly two years have passed since the 2018 World Cup, and establishing the overall outcome is a difficult task. Firstly, the tournament has reason to be remembered fondly by fans: exciting, attractive football, a strong home team, and a few surprises (Germany’s early exit, Croatia’s run to the final and Russia’s elimination of Spain certainly stick in the memory). That coupled with the introduction of VAR ensured the tournament proved entertaining. From the Kremlin’s perspective this helped demonstrate that the country has the operational capacity to host such an organisationally intensive affair, thus (partially) justifying their selection as host – a decision that was questioned in footballing and political spheres worldwide.

Such questioning was justified; corruption aside, Russia’s place on the world stage occurred at an interesting time. From their (alleged) involvement in the shooting down of MH17, to election meddling, to their role in the Syrian civil war, to their illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and their 2008 war with Georgia, this is a country that was, if nothing else, internationally disruptive. Indeed, this was the first ever World Cup to be hosted by a country under international economic sanctions; to some observers it was Moscow’s attempt – in conjunction with the 2014 Winter Olympics – to demonstrate it cannot be isolated by the EU and the West.

Russia, Mbappe and Neymar: The madness of World Cup 2018. (Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli)
Russia, Mbappe and Neymar: The madness of World Cup 2018. (Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli)

Russia’s World Cup was inescapably political, both overtly and discreetly. The first match saw Putin and Mohammed Bin Salman shaking hands, with 20 heads of state in attendance – the most ever at a World Cup game. The opening and closing speeches mirrored this, with their talk of international community and Russian friendliness, challenging assumptions on the global stage. As with many large sporting events, this was an occasion backed by millions of rubles, one that made sure the 2014 Olympics was followed up with emphatic proof that the operational success of the first event wasn’t a one-off.

In this way, the tournament was seen by the Kremlin in the same way the 2014 Winter Olympics were, as a way of improving Russia’s image worldwide, and in particular in the West. What better places to change opinions than two of the largest spectator events on the planet?

These mega-events were opportunities to reestablish Russia as one of the great powers, capable of grandeur, spectacle, and welcoming the international community to its shores. They made up an important part of the Kremlin’s soft power strategy, which aims to leverage non-military resources to gain standing within the global community. Whilst Russia is no longer an economic superpower, it seeks to exert power through other means, and their official foreign policy recognises soft power as ‘an integral part of efforts to achieve foreign policy objectives’. One of Russia’s foreign policy objectives is “to consolidate the Russian Federation’s position as a center of influence in today’s world”, which is surely a major driver in acquiring sports events, especially as these can also assist them in another objective; ‘[strengthening] Russia’s role in international culture’.

Putin himself said in an article for the Russian embassy to the UK that the Russian government must discuss how to ‘derive the maximum benefit for Russia’s image from hosting large international events’. What the Kremlin’s desired international image is, though, is somewhat complex, especially given their other (afore-mentioned) international activities.

Domestically, too, the World Cup was useful. It allowed economic regeneration to occur in several cities across Russia, diverting funds to places that otherwise may have remained low priority. Of the ten host cities, six feature in R&C’s 2018 Regions Event Potential Rating (the Moscow region is excluded). Being a host city brings with it certain infrastructural requirements, for example hotels, roads, and public transport links. As such, the World Cup is perfect for distributing governmental investment to areas that may be more susceptible to economic and political neglect. Russia built nine of its twelve World Cup stadiums and renovated three others in the eight years after being announced as hosts (in 2010). The tournament was a perfect opportunity for regions – as well as the nation as a whole – to endear themselves to international audiences.

The tournament was also used to shore up domestic issues surrounding football fan behaviour within Russia. Prior to the World Cup, there was widespread concern in Western media that Russian hooligans – as witnessed in France during the 2016 Euros – would cause issues and lead to violence and disruption during the 2018 edition. Prior to the 2018 tournament, Putin instigated a purge of high-profile football hooligans throughout Russia. This, typical of Russian policy, helped ensure smooth running of the tournament, meaning international opinion was undamaged whilst security concerns were quashed domestically. This kind of ‘two-level’ image maintenance is characteristic of the Kremlin’s mega-event strategy.

Moreover, the events that took place external to the World Cup’s staging allowed the tournament to act as a counterweight to, or a smokescreen for, internationally disruptive activities. Joseph Nye, the scholar who coined the term ‘soft power’, argued that the invasion of Crimea in 2014 prevented Russia from maximising soft power gains of the Winter Olympics. A similar argument could be applied to Russia’s hosting of the World Cup and the Novichok poisoning soon before. However, this interpretation fails to recognise that engaging in internationally unlawful activity when close to staging a mega-event allows a host nation to present two images of itself. Firstly, there is the image of Russia abroad; disruptive, far-reaching, and for the most part bad. Secondly, there is the image of Russia as host: welcoming, organised, friendly, etc. – strong. The juxtaposition of these two contrasting images allow Russia to appear ‘strong but bad’ on the world stage. On the one hand, they are capable of organising great tournaments and welcoming the world in. On the other, they break international norms and international law. Either way, their image doesn’t suffer as much as it would without the mega-event being held, and a rival discourse is presented to counter those that criticise its other international activity.

Outside of economic regeneration, the World Cup creates an avenue by which nationalism can seep into domestic affairs. International competition is the perfect arena for nationalism to blossom due to its intrinsic links with national pride and patriotism. Putin himself framed the tournament as organised by the people of Russia, causing them to perhaps feel they had a stake in its success; the tournament was regularly described as ‘ours’ by Putin.

Citizens, aware of the international gravitas that a mega-event brings with it, can be cast as unpatriotic if they do anything to jeopardise the fate of the tournament, for example questioning domestic affairs or the government. This was further demonstrated as the Russian government suspended all reporting on violent crimes during the World Cup; Putin even went so far as to say to the police ‘the image of the nation depends on your hard work’.

The World Cup’s usefulness domestically was most obvious when Putin’s government announced pension reforms (increasing the retirement age for men by 5 years and for women by 8) on the 14th of June, coinciding with the opening match of the World Cup. No protests were held in the 11 World Cup host cities due to a regulation banning protest in host cities for the duration of the tournament. Any protests that had been held on the day of the announcement could easily have been shut down by state sources with the justification that they were potentially jeopardising Russia’s international image, and thus were not patriotic acts. Moreover, the Russian national team playing their first match that evening acted as a further distraction for potential protesters. Whilst Putin’s approval ratings dropped to their lowest level since 2013 following this announcement and protests took place after the tournament, it never fell below 64%; anger was dampened, if not extinguished.

Both the ban on reporting violent crimes and the pension reform announcement are significant because they demonstrate the Kremlin’s portrayal of the tournament as a national project. Such discourse leads to the notion of the tournament – both when planned and in progress – becoming conflated with the idea of the state, and the nation. Political questions, opposition, and transgressions become forms of mild treason, jeopardising the future of the country. Such domestic security ensures a more smoothly run tournament, which in turn leads to greater status gains internationally, and such gains cause increased domestic legitimacy for Putin and the Kremlin. The relationship is cyclical, and an example of the relationship that embodies Russia’s ‘two-level’ events policy.

Of course, hosting a World Cup increases international exposure and regional awareness. But they also allow for leveraging; for hosts to tailor the effects of the World Cup to their liking. In Russia’s case, the strategic gains were manifold. Whilst the benefits that every World Cup bring were evident – for example increased tourism and opportunities for infrastructural regeneration – the Kremlin also ensured it profited politically, both domestically and abroad.

To say this World Cup served as some form of genius political posturing would be a gross exaggeration. However, it is emblematic of the type of national image the Kremlin seeks to espouse on the world stage. With Qatar gearing up for a tournament that is already caught up in political and civil issues, football fans worldwide should be cautious about taking what they see at face value.

Ewan Morgan

Welsh football writer, particularly interested in the politicisation of sport and/or Aaron Ramsey's right foot