Putin rides Fifa World Cup to achieve his diplomatic goals but political questions need tackling off the pitch

Michał Romanowski says Russia, in its efforts at sporting diplomacy, must address criticism related to corruption, international affairs and human rights

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 June, 2018, 8:59pm

Most football fans around the globe have been impatiently counting down minutes to the beginning of the World Cup. With Russia as the tournament’s host, politics may share the spotlight with soccer more than usual. Over the past four years, Moscow has contributed to shaking the foundations of the global international order and skilfully utilised sport as a tool. 

Russia, in its constant search for international legitimisation, sees mega sports events as a way to prove to the world it is a guardian of universal norms. Both the International Olympic Committee and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association are officially flag-bearers for the values of tolerance, peace, diversity and human rights.

For governments, sporting events are an opportunity to project a positive image. Even the Vatican state set up a sports department in 2004 to open new frontiers for evangelisation. In recent years, the Kremlin has organised an impressive series of sporting events, from the 2013 Universiade in Kazan to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2016 Ice Hockey World Championship. The Fifa World Cup, with 11 host cities in Russia, is next in line.

Yet by invading Ukraine in 2014 and intervening in the Middle East on Syria’s behalf, Moscow could not be farther away from the high-minded principles of international sporting organisations.

President Vladimir Putin prides himself on his athleticism, holding a black belt in judo, and he does not shy away from Russian state media releasing images of him diving bare-chested into icy lakes, fishing or horseback riding to relay the leader’s masculinity and vigour. However, in interviews and speeches, the Russian commander-in-chief continuously emphasises a desire to separate sports and politics. Before the Winter Olympics opened in Sochi, Putin complained about political questions from reporters, insisting the Games “are intended to depoliticise the most pressing international issues.”

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Other world leaders disagree, suggesting that any attempt to depoliticise sports is mission impossible. Juan Antonio Samaranch, former Spanish ambassador to Moscow and subsequently the president of the International Olympic Committee for more than two decades, described the Olympic Games as a microcosm of international relations, stressing that sport serves a role in the “harmonious development of mankind.”

Former UN secretary general Kofi Anan suggested that football in particular, given the number of Fifa members, is more universal than the United Nations – with the power to transcend borders, culture and socioeconomic status.

Sports has long impacted politics and vice versa. The ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s between the United States and China, a series of table tennis games played in both countries, paved the way to open dialogue. Boycotting or banishing a state from sporting events has also been utilised as a means of political protest. Americans did not attend the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to object to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. More recently, South Korea, host of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, proposed a joint hockey team and march for the opening ceremony to its northern neighbour, paving the way for the summit between the leaders of North Korea and the US.

The US will not have an opportunity to use the World Cup in Russia for diplomatic actions since the US soccer team surprisingly did not qualify.

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Football, played in more than 200 countries, is the globe’s most prominent and popular sport, and Putin welcomes that all eyes will be fixed on his country through to July 15. Such sporting events serve domestic objectives, boosting national pride and allowing for redistribution of financial assets through government contracts – in Russia’s case, the situation is especially rewarding for entrepreneurs with close links to the Kremlin.

Any battle against extortion and waste of state funds is a masquerade, and corruption continues unhindered

Mass-scale events in Russia require mobilisation of significant administrative resources, often lacking economic rationale, like construction of a 48,000-seat stadium in Sochi, which has no professional soccer team.

With tight deadlines, major government contracts in play and a leader’s reputation on the line, corrupt practices and mismanagement are commonplace. Putin personally questioned Dmitry Kozak, deputy prime minister in charge of the 2014 Winter Olympics – the costliest Olympics at US$51 billion – about construction delays and rampant corruption. No one was held responsible, and Kozak remains at his post. Any battle against extortion and waste of state funds is a masquerade, and corruption continues unhindered. Quality of construction is often poor, like the Information Centre in Kazan, which was damaged by heavy rain.

Preparations for the 2018 World Cup were not without scandals, either. Vitaly Mutko resigned from his role as chairman of the 2018 World Cup organising committee in Russia in December due to the investigation on state-sponsored doping. Mutko, a deputy prime minister, is still in charge of the Russian Football Union, despite being removed from the Fifa Council and banned for life by the International Olympic Committee.

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Corruption has dogged other construction projects related to this year’s World Cup. The final price for the Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg amounted to 700 per cent of the initial cost estimate, with multiple contractors changing along the way and the city forced to reduce social services to conclude the project. Three holdings run by Putin associates, including members of the ruling party United Russia, account for 80 per cent of infrastructure contracts related to the tournament.

Sports, and football in particular, have both benefited from and contributed to the process of globalisation. The advent of professionalism and the explosion of commercialisation, coupled with the widespread media coverage, have made soccer a powerful global vehicle – a lucrative business where transnational corporations raise the profiles of their brands. Global sports market revenue exceeded US$90 billion in 2017.

Today modern sport has lost its early romanticism when amateurs honourably competed for glory. Sporting events are a global phenomenon, serving governments’ political purposes as well as the commercial objectives of Fifa or the IOC. The World Cup in football will flatter Russia’s ego, but will not cover the nation’s systemic corruption and inefficiency.

Hosting the World Cup helps Russia claw its way towards showing that the country is not isolated from the West. Yet the mercantile factor matters most, and for the sport governing bodies like the IOC and Fifa, such events are business as usual, a mere guise for dialogue, human rights or peace. Moscow will again gladly exploit this opportunity for its own international ambitions.

Michał Romanowski is a Eurasia expert with The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online http://yaleglobal.yale.edu