27 May 2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) is greeted by Brazilian football legend Pele during the launch of the Confederations Cup in St. Petersburg last Saturday. Photo: Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) is greeted by Brazilian football legend Pele during the launch of the Confederations Cup in St. Petersburg last Saturday. Photo: Reuters

Trump factor silences Russia concerns as Confed Cup kicks off

You may not have noticed it, but FIFA’s Confederations Cup has just kicked off in Russia. The Confed Cup, as it is commonly called, is the football world governing body’s prelude to its staging of the World Cup next year (which will also be hosted by Russia).

The competition is being contested by national teams that have recently won their respective continental championships (e.g., Portugal, which won the 2016 European Championship title in France), as well as the previous World Cup’s winning team and a side representing the Confed’s host nation.

That Russia has even got as far as staging the competition is something of a surprise; perhaps even more surprising is how little anti-Russian rhetoric has accompanied the start of it.

This is in stark contrast to what has happened over the last decade, which at times has seen Russia’s hosting of both the Confed and the World Cup being kicked to the center-stage of a complex, sometimes controversial web of geopolitical issues.

The fact, though, that there has been relatively little noise or controversy surrounding the Confed Cup reveals something about how the world has changed over the last 12 months.

Ten years ago, a resurgent Russia was posting an annual economic growth of around 8 percent, buoyed by wealth derived from its mineral deposits and an associated investment boom.

This contributed to the emergence of a more bullish mood in Moscow, and a growing confidence within the government of the country’s national identity and its sense of place in the world.

In turn, sport became one of the ways in which the new, more powerful Russia could accentuate its global credentials.

This manifested itself in various ways, ranging from overseas sports acquisitions made by the country’s oligarchs to petrorouble-fueled investments in domestic ice hockey and football.

But it was the country’s bids to stage the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and the 2018 World Cup that most potently symbolized Russia’s sporting ambitions and the country’s desire to project its image across the world.

Inevitably, though, this attracted the attention of other countries, some of which (notably the United States) appeared to take the view that sport was being used by the Russians for geopolitical purposes.

The decision for Russia to host both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was hugely controversial; many critics were suspicious about the irregularity of and overall governance underpinning the decision.

Qatar has since been at the forefront of concerns about FIFA’s unusual decision to award hosting rights to two tournaments at the same time.

Rumors have circulated for some time that, irrespective of how Qatar had allegedly sought to influence the hosting decision, Russia’s misdemeanors had apparently been even worse.

Yet this year’s Confed Cup testifies that such rumors were either without substance, or else have been appropriately squashed by some of those with a stake in the matter.

More contentiously, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi cast Russia in a much more negative light. The staging costs alone (around US$51 billion) made it one of the most expensive sports events in history, leading observers to conclude that it was more a vanity project designed to promote Vladimir Putin’s presidency than it was a sporting event.

With avowed Putin critic Barack Obama in the White House, the narrative around the Olympics nevertheless became a hugely negative one.

One rallying point for this was a focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) rights in Russia. Indeed, several US corporations took the opportunity to address this matter using public statements supporting the LGBT community.

Behind the scenes, conflict in Ukraine and the potential annexation of Crimea were simmering. But when Russia eventually took control of Crimea, and following the subsequent shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over the eastern part of Ukraine, a vehement Obama imposed sanctions on Russia.

This immediately caused Russia some economic difficulties, thus deflating the bubble of its great sporting project. At the same time, world oil prices began to fall, with some observers questioning whether nations were colluding to manipulate carbon fuel markets to further undermine Moscow.

Against this backdrop, the United States’ FBI appeared on the scene following FIFA’s re-election of Sepp Blatter as its president. Almost simultaneously, several US corporations issued a joint statement condemning corruption inside FIFA.

Although such moves were positioned as concern for global football’s integrity, there was a distinct odor of it being more a geopolitical takedown of Russia than a sudden love for a game with which America has never been particularly enamored.

It hardly seemed a coincidence that a major international drugs scandal subsequently transpired, in which Russia was ultimately proven to be the guilty party.

In its quest to project an image of power and glory, the country has been identified as having engaged in systematic athlete doping on an industrial scale. This culminated in numerous positive drugs tests being returned for Russian athletes, competition medals being taken away from them and several of its teams being denied entry to international tournaments.

In what seemed like a counter-strike, a Russian hacking group called Fancy Bears began revealing details of athletes elsewhere in the world with what it felt were troubling doping records.

Throw into this toxic mix a dose of violent Russian hooliganism at the European football championship in 2016, and concerns about immigrant worker deaths on the country’s World Cup stadium construction sites, and the scene became set for a global outpouring of cynicism, concern and calls for Russia to be stripped of its World Cup hosting rights.

But then along came Donald Trump, with tales of his Russian alliances and his strong regard for President Putin. Trump’s position on Moscow, however, has been distinctly different from that of his White House predecessor.

And with it has come silence. The concerted Obama-era condemnation of Russia seems to have subsided.  It looks like the “Feds” have been pulled from the case, and even the Fancy Bears seem to be taking some time away from the frontlines.

As such, in the run-up to the Confed Cup, aside from the stories about North Korean construction workers, the ongoing threat of nationalist motivated hooliganism, and a problem with event sponsorship, all has been relatively quiet on the eastern front.

However, we are still a year away from the main event. Hence, there is plenty of time yet for geopolitics to kick in at football’s biggest global event. Keep watching.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.

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