The right to host the FIFA World Cup is a fiercely contested honour. When Russia was awarded the tournament of 2018, it defeated a rival bid from England—as well as joint proposals from Belgium and Holland, and Spain and Portugal.
Yet hosting the world’s most popular sporting event also entails real risks for the Russian government. In previous tournaments, football has become a backdrop for political and social protests. In Brazil in 2014, President Dilma Rousseff was routinely booed when she appeared at matches—a sign of the unpopularity that was to lead to her impeachment and removal from office in 2016. Football provided little solace for the Brazilian president. Her country’s celebrated team, widely expected to win the cup, suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany in the semi-finals. The “feel-good” mood that the Brazilian government had fondly hoped would be generated by the tournament swiftly gave way to something much more sour.
Russia is a far more tightly controlled and less democratic country than Brazil, so there will be fewer opportunities to use the tournament as a forum for public protest. Still, the World Cup will take place at a sensitive time. The first match, in Moscow on June 14th, will be less than three months after Russia’s presidential election.
Given the nature of the Russian system, there is little doubt that Vladimir Putin will have secured re-election. Nonetheless, the last presidential poll in 2012 was preceded by large anti-government demonstrations in Moscow and elsewhere, which alarmed Mr Putin. This time, the anti-Putin forces, led by the charismatic Alexei Navalny, are rallying around the issue of official corruption.
In Brazil and South Africa (which staged the tournament in 2010) concerns about official corruption became focused on the inflated costs of building new stadiums. Something similar could easily happen with the Russian World Cup, where there have already been scandals about cost overruns. The Krestovsky stadium in St Petersburg, which will be one of the tournament’s major venues, was completed eight years behind schedule and came in 540% over budget. A former vice-governor of the region was charged with accepting a bribe to award a lighting contract for the stadium. But there will be widespread suspicions in Russia that tournament-related corruption ran much deeper.
The Russian team, which will kick off the competition at the opening match in Moscow, is also a source of concern. The team performed woefully at its last big tournament, the European Championship in France in 2016, losing to both Wales and Slovakia. This might seem like a trivial matter. But Mr Putin has presented himself at home as an agent of national renewal and reassertion. He was visibly deflated when the Russian ice-hockey team was defeated by the United States at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. The World Cup is a much bigger stage and Mr Putin will be obliged to attend Russia’s opening game, at the very least. If the national team goes down to a limp defeat, which is entirely possible, the symbolic message will be just the opposite of the one the Russian leader is looking for.
The Putin government also has cause to worry about events off the field. Russian football hooligans were involved in crowd violence at Euro 2016. And some Russian fans have developed a reputation for directing racist abuse at black players, which would be an acute embarrassment, given the multiracial nature of the tournament. However, the Russian government has had plenty of time to prepare for these problems and will, presumably, have done its utmost to ensure that hooligan groups are kept under control and that fans behave themselves.
A game of two halves
The issues of hooligans and fan behaviour highlight the point that the World Cup is also an opportunity for Russia to refashion its global image. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine have led to economic sanctions and a trashing of the country’s international reputation. The Putin government will see the World Cup as a chance to reintroduce Russia to the world, and particularly to the television audiences and travelling fans from the European Union, the country’s biggest trading partner, which has imposed damaging sanctions.
Such efforts at national rebranding can be helped along by a successful World Cup. The tournament staged in Germany in 2006 showcased not just the country’s efficiency but also a fun-loving and welcoming side that was less well-known. The Russian government will hope that foreigners will look beyond the political controversies, and even the football, and enjoy the country’s rich culture, as well as some of its less-discovered second-tier cities, such as Kazan and Samara.
Once World Cups start, they often take on a life of their own, and pre-tournament concerns are forgotten. Mr Putin has every reason to hope that the same thing will happen at Russia 2018.