FIFA World Cup, Russia

Even before the whistle had blown on 15th of July to crown France as the world champions at the end of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, media around the world had already proclaimed the event as a big success. The New York Times put this edition of the world cup among the best ever, while The Independent headline stated that ‘the World Cup helped Russia put on its best face – and the world smiled back’.

It would be remiss to doubt that the World Cup was a double victory for Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. For one, the tournament and its festivities saturated the Russians with a feeling of pride and accomplishment. Even the cities that were not affluent with luxurious hotels like Sransk were gripped by a torrent of passion from the Colombian and Peru fans. Ironically, the biggest scandal in the whole tournament would be the argument over the question that whether the Russian women should sexually interact with foreigners or not. And capping it all off was the performance of the Russian national team, who despite being underestimated before the tournament began, managed to reach the quarter finals of the competition beating the tournament favourite Spain; giving their nation a rare reason to celebrate.

For the many sceptics who perceived Russia to be a police state build in the image of its predecessor Soviet Union, the World Cup turned out to be a pleasant tour through the lively streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Sochi.

For the other nations of the world, this event can serve as a great study of an effective propagation of soft power. For the many sceptics who perceived Russia to be a police state build in the image of its predecessor Soviet Union, the World Cup turned out to be a pleasant tour through the lively streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Sochi.

The 2014 Sochi Olympics could have had a similar legacy if it were not for events like the Crimean annexation, the Ukraine war, and the doping scandal involving over a thousand Russian athletes. The World Cup, on the other hand, sidestepped political controversies. The draw ensured that teams like the United States, Ukraine and the Netherlands all failed to qualify which averted any potential confrontation among the fans due to political biases and loyalties. However, the success of the World Cup is also attributable to the strong political will and dedication of vast resources in making the tournament successful. Putin and company played their best cards at the right times, and the effect was quite exquisite. It all comes down to the country’s unique knack of mobilising for such novel occasions. The work gets done efficiently, may it be hosting the World Cup or completing the bridge to annex Crimea.

For Putin, the positives are plentiful. Despite his overhauling victory in the recent Presidential elections – even though the main opposition leader was barred from contesting the elections – Putin is aware of the fact that maintaining the loyalty of the Russians is an uphill task.

The World Cup came at a time when Putin was under considerable pressure to prove his effectiveness as a leader who can deliver results for the good of Russia and its people. And deliver, he did. He was able to attract more than five million fans to the stadiums to watch the match, including 2.9 million foreigners which is quite outstanding considering the fact that the tournament was embroiled in political controversy before its start. The country had to contend with travel warnings, boycotts by eminent leaders and even extreme calls for stripping Russia of the privilege to host the event altogether. Nonetheless, Putin was up to task as he introduced relaxations in Russia’s visa procedures to facilitate football fans entering the country, and announced easy entry of foreign fans who hold World Cup match tickets into the country for the rest of 2018.

In addition to this, many feared politically-motivated clashes among the fans during the tournament and even a potential terrorist attack in response to the Russian antics in Syria and Russia. However, these fears were not realised. All the negativity surrounding the event before kick-off was trumped by the beauty of the football game, the thrill of the last-minute winners, the nerve-wracking matches between footballing giants, the inspiring stories and journey of minnow nations like Iceland and Croatia, and the positive experience of the foreign visitors. At one point, the French President was caught celebrating his team’s victory with a wild look of joy in his eyes and his arms in the air. On the other hand, even the sour relations and diplomatic hostility between the UK and Russia could not escape the attraction of football as a wreath-laying ceremony involving the English football fans was held in order to mark the 75th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest clash during World War II.

In the grand context of things, the World Cup panned out exactly how Putin would have wanted it to. It altered the general perception of the country and is proving to be a success in terms of Russia’s soft power projection, comfortably outshining the Olympics of 2014. The fact that Putin having a sit-down with Trump in Helsinki is just another strategic victory for the Russian leader even if the summit fails to deliver any positive results.

Of course, the magic can last only for so long as all good things must surely come to an end. According to Yevgeny Roizman, an Ekaterinburg politician, the world cup did not reflect the true picture of what everyday life is like in Russia. After all, the World Cup is hardly something that would reflect everyday life. ‘It was a prazdnik, a festival – a moment when a country puts on its best face to welcome the world,’ he said.

If history is to go by anything, the benefits and goodwill that Russia has managed to accrue from the World Cup may turn out to be only temporary.

If history is to go by anything, the benefits and goodwill that Russia has managed to accrue from the World Cup may turn out to be only temporary. Even now, the Russian government continues to face much criticism. For one, the government’s pension reform plan has been the target of harsh disapproval as it aims to raise the retirement age to 65 for men and 63 for women in 2019. The United Russia party faces a huge challenge in its bid to convince the locals that the plan is good for the national economy ahead of the local elections later this year.

In addition to this, Putin also has a minute window of opportunity if he is to capitalise on the good will accrued by the World Cup and build on it to mend his relations with the West. But many doubt his ability to do that. One need not look beyond Moscow’s acrimonious relations with its neighbours during sporting events in the past to understand the lack of faith that the global community has in Putin. During the 2008 Summer Olympics, while the world was engrossed by the opening ceremony in Beijing, Russia was busy in a sparring contest with Georgia which eventually led to Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s two autonomous regions. Similarly, the noise from the closing ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics had barely died down when Russia decided to annex the Crimean peninsula.

Therefore, there is no doubt in the fact that Russia will receive little respite despite its successful hosting of the World Cup. As investigations rage on Moscow’s alleged involvement in the US presidential elections and the poisoning of the UK agent, it is evident that the West has no immediate plans of befriending Putin any time soon. However, one cannot escape a slight mellowing of the heart and perceptions regarding Russia when the smiling faces of contentment around the world roll on the TV montages of the World Cup.

Muhammad Saad

Muhammad Saad

is a graduate of School of Economics of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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