With retaliation talk against Russia rumbling into threats, could there really be a World Cup boycott?

Fifa’s showcase summer festival of football is under threat by the shifting sands of geopolitics and retribution against Russia

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 10:35am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 8:33pm

It might seem like a long way from a provincial English town to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium (which will host the opening game of this summer’s football World Cup). However, following the poisoning of Russian former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the journey has been a short, fast, direct one. Along with bellicose talk and diplomatic retributions, the possibility of some countries boycotting this summer’s mega-event has rapidly risen-up the political agenda.

In Britain, the country’s perpetually boisterous foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has suggested that if England play in the tournament, it will present Russian president Vladimir Putin with the same kind of propaganda opportunity afforded to Adolf Hitler by countries that participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

A unilateral boycott by England or any other country would be largely symbolic – a statement withdrawal rather than a measure that would affect positive behavioural change at the heart of Russian government. For there to be any meaningful or tangible impact upon Putin and Russia would require broader, more coordinated support. Whether or not this can be achieved remains to be seen.

There have previously been mass boycotts in sport, notably at the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games (coincidentally, though unsurprisingly, in Moscow and Los Angeles). Similarly, the world of sport repeatedly demonstrated its ability to exert political pressure on a nation during the boycott of apartheid-era South Africa.

The world is a different place now, but this history of sport mixing with geopolitics still suggests that Russia is rather more exposed to its showcase event being disrupted than Putin’s bullish posturing might suggest.

Several commentators argued that in the age of Putin’s Russia and Donald Trump’s United States, we are not reliving a contemporary reincarnation of the Cold War. Instead, this is a period during which there are perceived to be few rules, and where Putin’s political strategy often seems to be targeted more at a domestic audience than foreign ones.

In this respect, Putin’s approach to leadership is reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s leadership style: claim the world is against you, then utilise this as a basis for garnering internal support and building a solid, cohesive identity in the face of one’s adversaries.

Which all implies two things. First, whatever a boycott might be intended to achieve, it is almost impossible to predict how Putin and Russia might respond to it. Second, while boycotters might seek to inflict damage upon Russia, Putin is highly likely to see such actions as an opportunity to strengthen his domestic position.

It is worth keeping in mind too that the Russian president has already proved to be highly adept at using sports mega-events for his own ends. After all, it was less than a month after the end of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi before Russia annexed Crimea.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of boycotting the tournament, a bigger issue will be for countries to coordinate mass action. Boris Johnson’s threats aside, the unilateral and sole withdrawal of England would arguably be a victory for Putin.

In Marseille two years ago, Russian hooligans engaged in coordinated violence against their English counterparts at the 2016 Uefa European Championship. ‘Putting one over’ England again would be a victory for Putin. These things might seem like very small wins for Russia, but England historically occupies something of a privileged position in world football, so for Putin their importance is likely to appear much larger.

This means that if England wants an effective boycott of the tournament, then it will have to lead and coordinate a unified effort.

This will be a difficult task, not least because the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup. However, the British government may still have considerable leverage in Washington given that the event is being sponsored by a number of large American corporations. As such, one wonders what pressure might be brought to bear upon them by Washington, and how this may impact upon Fifa.

An interesting back-story to this scenario is an ongoing bribery trial taking place in a New York. Could the US use threats to sanction Fifa officials as a way of getting the governing body to turn against Russia?

Tear gas and pepper spray comes out in Lille as English and Russian fans clash again

That said, the balance of power in Fifa’s commercial portfolio has dramatically shifted in recent years. Significantly, one of the governing body’s major sponsors is now Gazprom, a Russian majority state-owned energy corporation. In addition, Chinese companies such as Wanda have become important financial partners to the world game’s governing body. Given the state of relations between Beijing and Moscow, one therefore suspects that the former will work hard on behalf of the latter to ensure that the threat of a boycott remains just a threat.

As it has its own World Cup aspirations, China wants to be seen as supportive of Fifa, and will be especially keen to ensure the tournament passes-off without hitch. However, the shifting geopolitical sands dictate that Beijing alone will not be able to exert significant control in relation to a boycott.

Russia’s opening game of the tournament is against Saudi Arabia, a contest that is a significant microcosm of the fractures currently manifest in global geopolitics.

UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson compares Vladimir Putin’s World Cup to Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Olympics

Fractious change in the Gulf region has resulted in Saudi Arabia seeking to isolate Iran (itself a qualifier for this year’s World Cup), which has seen Riyadh move closer to both the United States and Israel. At the same time, Iran is closely aligned with Russia, which means that Britain may find the Saudis amenable to talks about a tournament boycott.

Or maybe not – last year King Salman visited Russia seeking to build a new relationship with Putin and Moscow, not least centred on their mutual oil and gas interests.

The case of Saudi Arabia alone proves how difficult it will be for a small number of countries to organise a boycott of the tournament, let alone a large number of them. The world is too interconnected and the global sport network too dense to swiftly coordinate and implement a boycott.

This means that England can’t really walk alone in failing to show up for the tournament. In which case, we should probably expect a tense, edgy World Cup, in which nations antagonistic to Russia prove to be rather troublesome, uncooperative guests.

This piece is published in partnership with Policy Forum at The Australian National University’s Crawford School and the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.