The 2018 Russia World Cup: The Politics of Football

Photo: Wikimedia CommonsPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

On the banks of the river Volga lies Nizhny Novgorod, a 1.2 million people strong city on the borderlands of Siberia. Nizhny, one of the lesser-known host cities for the 2018 Russia World Cup, will host the Three Lions in their match against World Cup minnows Panama on June 24th. The city, formerly named Gorky after the esteemed Soviet writer, was previously closed to foreigners right up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Welcoming the likes of Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Harry Kane will be a hugely exciting prospect for the city’s many football-loving citizens. Like many Russian cities, Nizhny has its own Kremlin, many beautiful churches and a brand-new football stadium, built purposefully for the World Cup. The “Nizhny Novgorod Stadium”, one of Russia’s eight new stadia, will have a 45,000-person capacity and an impressive semi-transparent design that takes inspiration from the river Volga on which the city is situated. However, the key word here is ‘will’. With its as-of-yet unopened doors, projected cost of $290 million and fire defense measures that were unexpectedly tested in October 2017, the stadium highlights many of the common problems that beset host countries in the run-up to a World Cup, namely long delays and spiralling costs.

This is certainly not a new problem for Russia. The legacy of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, of which the cost was just under $55 billion (the most expensive Olympic Games ever – summer or winter), still looms large in the minds of many ordinary Russians. They rightly question why billions are being spent on stadia when millions of Russians are suffering under the effects of poverty, inequality and corruption. St. Petersburg’s “Krestovsky” Stadium, which will host one of the World Cup’s semi-finals, has also amplified this widespread discontent. It was completed 8 years behind schedule, 540% over budget and built by North Korean labourers in slave-like conditions.

In Russia’s current economic climate, such radical over-spending and misuse of state funds is particularly striking. Although the economy has successfully emerged from recession, stagnation is looming, and the World Bank predicts that GDP growth will not exceed 2% over the coming years. This is a far cry from the impressive economic growth of the early 2000s during Putin’s first tenure as president. Russians have grown increasingly sceptical of the government’s ability to introduce effective economic reforms to combat minimal economic growth and falling living standards. Alexei Navalny, a leading opposition activist, has struck a chord with these disgruntled Russians in his far-reaching campaign against government corruption. His investigative film “He is not Dimon to you”, which examines the alleged corruption of Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister of Russia, has amassed 25 million views on YouTube. The anti-corruption protests, which took place on March 26th 2017 in response to the authorities’ reluctance to investigate these allegations, were reportedly the largest since the post-2012 election protests, with an estimated 60,000 people taking part across 80 Russian towns and cities. This scale of grass-roots activism undoubtedly came as a shock to Putin’s government. Under his simple slogan, “Don’t lie and don’t steal”, Navalny has attempted to expose the network of rampant cronyism that has robbed the Russian people of billions of rubles while Putin’s allies have lined their own pockets. The World Cup stadia have become a symbol of state corruption.

Coincidentally it was in Nizhny Novgorod in December that Putin announced his candidacy for the March 2018 presidential elections. Even if Navalny, Putin’s most threatening rival, was not barred from running due to trumped-up embezzlement charges, there is virtually no doubt that Putin will return to the Kremlin for another successive term. The timing of the elections on March 18th, the four-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, is no coincidence. Putin likes to use significant state anniversaries and events as an opportunity to project an image of strength. The 2018 World Cup will likely be one of these occasions. Russia has a history of inserting a political agenda into the narrative of major sporting events. In fact, there is a clear relationship between Russian sporting achievements and aggressive foreign policy campaigns. The wild national celebrations sparked by Russia reaching the semi-finals of the 2008 European Championships was quickly followed by a similar show of strength by Putin: the invasion of Georgia. Similarly, Putin decided to annex Crimea and tacitly support Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine directly after Russia’s strong performance at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The Russian president, who openly admits his indifference to football, knows that the World Cup represents another such opportunity to demonstrate his power on the world stage.

The impressive economic growth of Putin’s first two terms has, since 2012, given way to assertive foreign policy decisions as alternative means to consolidate his power. During the World Cup, all eyes will be on Russia, and Putin will want to flex his muscles. He has been engaged in a Trumpian “Make Russia Great Again” campaign long before his American counterpart, and the World Cup offers a chance to advance his project of national rebranding, both at home and abroad. It is an opportunity to offer the world a better image of Russia. China managed to show a new side to the world during the 2008 Olympic Games and Putin hopes to follow their example. However, unlike China, Russia faces a host of significant barriers to reconciliation with many of its most fervent critics. The war in Ukraine, support for Bashar Assad’s regime and alleged interference in several sovereign elections are just a few of these obstacles. While the World Cup cannot directly solve any of these problems, offering Westerners a warm welcome and the chance to familiarize themselves with Russia’s rich culture and history, will help to overcome the perception of Russia as a hostile, pariah state.

However, Putin has famously never much cared for what the West thinks of him and his regime. Accordingly, the World Cup is as much for Russians as for foreigners. Russians will take great pride in hosting arguably the biggest sporting tournament in the world, and may take it as a reinforcement of Putin’s claim that Russia has once again become a global power on the world stage. Paradoxically the West’s hostility towards Russia allows Putin to stir up patriotic sentiment, painting the West both as a bully and a scapegoat for Russia’s economic troubles. He will continue to disseminate this view in order to distract attention from Russia’s deep internal problems.

Despite the potential hijacking of the World Cup for political purposes, the tournament also poses sizeable risks for President Putin. It could act as a backdrop for socio-political protests, as in 2014 when then President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, was routinely booed at matches. Similarly, a poor performance by the Russian national team would bring considerable public embarrassment for Putin. Russia is certainly not a country with an illustrious footballing history, and its woeful showing at the 2016 European Championships (losing to Wales and Slovakia) was not well received by the people. Russia’s status as the lowest-ranked team (64th in the world) at its own World Cup has the potential of causing a national disaster reminiscent of Brazil’s shocking semi-final thrashing by Germany in 2014. In addition to these risks, issues of safety and discrimination also still raise serious concerns for travelling fans.

Ultimately, the Russian government faces many difficulties that it must urgently address in order that the tournament runs smoothly from 14th June. There are still clearly many uncertainties surrounding the 2018 Russia World Cup, whether it is the question of fan safety, financial irresponsibility, or delays in the building of stadia. However, one thing is certain: in Russia, sport and politics are inseparable. This will likely be the most politicised World Cup to date.