“You have entrusted us with the FIFA World Cup for 2018 and I can promise you will never regret it,” was the fateful proclamation of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov at FIFA’s Zurich HQ in December 2010. A bold statement, but few could have predicted just how wrong Shuvalov would be as then-FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, in essence signed his own death warrant that day.
From allegations of fraud and bribery in the voting process – contributing to the eventual demise of Blatter and many senior FIFA officials – to significant concerns surrounding homophobia, racism and hooliganism, World Cup 2018 was almost immediately embroiled in controversy as its come to be regarded by many as the most politicised ever.
When in March 2018 an unknown assailant used Russian nerve agent Novichok to poison former KGB officer and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, this already fraught World Cup adopted monumental international dimensions. Who was responsible seemed of little doubt to UK Prime Minister Theresa May, as 23 Russian diplomats were expelled from British shores in the weeks following. Twenty-seven other countries – most crucially the United States – followed suit in subsequent days in the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomatic personnel since the Cold War.
While Russia vociferously denied any involvement in the assassination attempt, labelling the charges unfounded and politically motivated, international condemnation has continued unabated as the Trump regime slapped fresh sanctions on the country in early April, citing Russian “efforts to undermine Western democracies”.
Inevitably, with the world’s greatest sporting spectacle on the horizon, calls for a boycott of the World Cup have gathered pace in various forms, ranging from the non-attendance of senior foreign officials to threats of the complete withdrawal of several teams from the tournament. This, according to Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, has been the intention all along, who claims the West’s main aim is to prevent Russia from hosting the World Cup. “They will use any means. Their minds are only on that football and God forbid it should touch a Russian football field,” she told Russia’s Channel 5 TV.
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Zakharova’s claim may not be without merit, as UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson controversially drew comparisons between Russian President Vladamir Putin and Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Munich Olympics as Nazi propaganda. “I think the comparison with 1936 is certainly right. It is an emetic prospect of Putin glorying in this sporting event,” he said. While Johnson is clearly convinced of Russia’s political shrewdness by hosting the World Cup, are the Foreign Secretary’s claims based on sound precedent?
Sport is Politics and Politics is Sport
During the decades-long Cold War, tensions between East and West Germany were palpable. The physical division of Berlin, between the faltering communist East and prosperous capitalist West following the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, established the German city as a parabolic frontline in a battle for ideological supremacy. Consequently, when the estranged brüder were drawn together in Group One at the 1974 World Cup, the game inevitably adopted a deeper symbolism of ideological and class struggle.
The first and only time the two sides would meet at senior international level, on offer was much more than two points as each team assumed the role of flag bearer for their nation’s way of life. So when the unfancied easterners defeated the defending European champions – featuring the likes of Gerd Müller and Franz Beckenbauer – in front of 62,000 fans at the Volksparkstadion in Hamburg courtesy of a Jürgen Sparwasser goal, it hardly mattered that West Germany went on to win the tournament. Communism had triumphed over capitalism, at least according to the East German political elite who seized upon the enticingly simple allegory the result offered their country’s browbeaten population.
What the East German leaders capitalised on is the visceral power of sport in the political realm as people galvanise around their national teams, evoking patriotism and tribalism in even the staunchest internationalists. And at no time is this principle truer than when hosting high profile sporting events. Johnson’s aforementioned example of the 1936 Munich Olympics is an enduring and recurring example, as Hitler used spectacular stadia, sporting prowess and highly sanitised images of German society to swell the Nazi’s prestige on the international stage.
In more recent times, the 1978 World Cup in Argentina has long been regarded as the archetypal case of sport being cynically manipulated for political means. Hosted by an oppressive military junta who came to power two years prior in a coup d’état, the Argentine government used the World Cup to the obscure the rampant political oppression and mass disappearances occurring under their rule, promising a “World Cup of Peace” and instructing “all patriotic Argentines to unite behind the national flag.”
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Despite the omnipresent threat of government-sponsored violence, protests against military rule still found their voice in subtle (black bands on goalposts) and overt (marches by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo commemorating the “disappeared” thousands) forms throughout the tournament.
Ultimately, however, Argentine success in the tournament had the intended effect, as striker Leopoldo Luque recalled: “The fans seemed to forget the poverty and the deprivation in the big cities. Most days we’d have fans running alongside our team bus, praying for us and holding rosary beads. You could see in their eyes just how much it meant to them. We laboured under a huge responsibility to win the tournament for our people and help them to forget their suffering. How could we not win the World Cup for these people?”
Amid claims of amphetamine-fuelled players, tortured fans, intimidated referees and match fixing, ultimately it was the brutal military junta that emerged triumphant as indomitable captain Daniel Passarella held the trophy aloft in Buenos Aires in front of millions of adoring Argentines as the Netherlands succumbed to a 3-1 defeat in the final. With this image, they successfully – if fleetingly – succeeded in attempts to foster images of Argentine national unity, both at home and abroad.
The Resurgence of the Russian Bear
While few would liken Putin’s Russia to the brutality of 1970s Argentina, with even fewer suggesting that Stanislav Cherchesov’s lowly side have even a remote chance of repeating Passarella’s feat by triumphing come July, hosting the 2018 World Cup has been depicted as equally prudent within the context of Russia’s wider political ambitions.
The re-election of Vladamir Putin in 2012 for his third term in office ushered in a new era of Russian resurgence after years of relative political obscurity and unchallenged global dominance for the United States in the two decades following the thawing of the Cold War in 1991.
Order | World Cup X
The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, decisive Russian intervention in the Syrian conflict that reversed the trajectory back towards Bashir al-Assad’s government in 2015, alleged Russian interference in the US presidential election in 2016, and most recently the poisoning of Sergei Skripal indicate a Russian government that is attempting to re-assert itself as a major player in the international arena, and position itself as a counter-balance to American hegemony. Unsurprisingly, these developments have also triggered speculation about the possibility of a second Cold War; a fear propagated, not in small part, by Russian officials themselves.
Alongside these provocative acts in the international political arena, Russia has hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as well as, barring any further political catastrophes, the World Cup come June. Inevitably, this summer’s tournament has been neatly woven into an appealingly simple narrative, characterising it as a political coup for Putin’s remerging Russian Bear as they place themselves at centre stage, raising their prestige by hosting the world’s most popular sporting event. But if the East German’s taught us anything, it’s that appealing simple narratives rarely offer the full story.
According to Sven Daniel Wolfe, an expert on Russian sporting politics at Lausanne University, he has observed fatigue among the country’s political elite after the long and heavily scrutinised road they have trodden to reach this summer’s World Cup, following seemingly unending bribery, homophobia and racism scandals. “The general feeling I get from the authorities is, ‘Let’s get this over with’,” he commented in 2017; a sentiment that has likely only been exacerbated by the ongoing calls for a boycott of the tournament.
Combine this with Putin’s reported disinterest in football, the lowly status of Sbornaya – only Saudi Arabia are ranked lower out of all qualifying teams, indicating an almost inevitable early elimination that is likely to detract, rather than contribute, to national prestige – and it seems entirely plausible that Russia’s hosting duties could potentially feel more like a burden than an opportunity at this point.
But whether political boon or unwanted obligation, what can be said with some degree of certainty is that Russia 2018 has matched, if not wrested, the mantle of most politicised World Cup in history from Argentina 1978, and we haven’t even kicked a ball yet.
By Alastair McCready
Alastair runs SoccerPolitik, a social media-based blog about the politics of football. Check it out on Instagram and Facebook.