The World Cup Final in Moscow was almost the perfect ending to a story that has seen Vladimir Putin and Russia go from the enemies of liberal democracy to one of its most valued new acquaintances, in little more than four weeks.
However, a pitch invasion midway through the second-half of the match by members of feminist protest group Pussy Riot helped to remind us that Russia is unlikely to have reformed itself within the space of a month.
Prior to the tournament, there were apocalyptic forecasts of Putin utilizing the World Cup for political purposes, especially at home amongst domestic voters. There was concern too, with some observers speculating that the Russian government might use football’s biggest event as a springboard to something sinister. After all, it was less than a month after the end 2014’s Winter Olympics in Sochi that Russia annexed Crimea.
Yet this summer’s competition appears to have been a lesson in how sport can be used to positively represent a country and, indeed, to begin changing perceptions of it. Instead of the violence and repression that many people suspected would characterize the Russian World Cup experience, there has been much talk globally of good organization and warm hospitality. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that this World Cup has been the best ever.
It helped that Putin was not omnipresent during the tournament. Having been prominent during the opening match of the tournament, when Russia played Saudi Arabia, the Russian president effectively disappeared later. Sure, he is a busy man, though one suspects that his advisors managed his appearances as part of a major PR push in order to shape our perceptions of Russia. What we were supposed to see was an event that was not about Putin, the play was that it was about the country and its people.
By the time Putin reappeared, at the Final, cynics were backtracking on their earlier view that the World Cup was intended to be little more than a showcase for Vladimir. Subsequently, several commentators have even gone so far as to suggest that Brand Russia has detoxified itself and is now on the road to some kind of geopolitical redemption.
However, Pussy Riot’s encroachment onto the field of play, high-fiving France’s Kylian MBappe as they did it, nevertheless reminded us that, beneath the football gloss, Russia is troubled and troubling. Not only are LGBT rights an issue, but during the tournament Putin’s government raised the retirement age for Russian citizens.
Add to this, hunger strikes by political prisoners, a second Novichok poisoning in Britain (which Russia has been accused of perpetrating) and concerns about Russia’s ongoing interventions in countries including Syria, and one seriously begins to wonder how anyone could possibly be feeling upbeat about the greatest, fastest reformation of a country in living memory.
Some people will no doubt claim that sport can be a force for good, while others will assert that staging a sports-mega-event can serve as a soft power instrument for host nations. However, critics alternatively argue that countries often ‘sport wash’ their image and reputations by using the likes of World Cup tournaments to divert attention or to mislead audiences into thinking a country has changed or is something it is not.
Indeed, there was sufficient evidence of the real Putin and his thinking in the space of fifteen minutes at the end of the World Cup Final. As the presentation ceremony got underway, torrential rain started to fall in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Tellingly, as the presidents of Croatia (Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović) and France (Emmanuel Macron) became drenched, Putin stood serenely underneath an umbrella, reveling in the glory of his achievements throughout June and July.
In the great poker game of geopolitics however, his behavior was a ‘tell’ – a show of behavior that provided clues about his thinking and perceptions of position and status. He could have displayed good manners to his guests or shown empathy for his fellow leaders by sharing his umbrella. But he did not and in so doing Putin clearly showed disregard for his peers.
The world should not therefore be fooled by a summer of seduction in Samara and Saransk. Russia has not been re-invented nor has its brand been detoxified. Admittedly, there has been some refreshing of perceptions and attitudes, but this is unlikely to sustain either Russia or global geopolitics through the winter, into next year and beyond.
Putin’s meeting with US president Donald Trump the day after the World Cup Final showed how the balance of global power is changing, and how football is caught in the middle of the shift. Putin will play this; already, the 2022 World Cup is currently stuck in the crossfire of a regional feud that is pressing countries to ally themselves either with the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel or else with Russia, Iran, and probably China too.
Moreover, as we headed into the final week of the competition, Russia announced plans to invest US$50 billion in Iran’s oil industry, probably via Gazprom. This is the same Gazprom that sponsored the World Cup, and the same Gazprom that sponsors the UEFA Champions League and German football club FC Schalke 04. It is also the same Gazprom that is now working with Germany on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas transportation project, which Trump recently questioned in a damning speech about relations between Berlin and Moscow.
Gazprom has sucked football into the world of global energy supplies, just as Russia sucked FIFA into its geopolitical strategy. Sure, the 2018 World Cup was exciting; it helped the tournament ingratiate itself in the popular imagination; some of us even had our national teams perform well during the competition.
However, we should not get too carried away that either Russia or the world had somehow changed. The likes of Russia (and, for that matter, the United States – which we now know will host the World Cup in 2026) often play the long game. This means that this most enjoyable of summers will ultimately prove to have been nothing more than a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
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