Russia’s World Cup: a Putin own goal?
Listen to this article
Give us your feedback
Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
Like most Russians, Vladimir Putin isn’t a football fan, but in 2009 he decided that Russia should bid to host the 2018 World Cup. This Friday, when the draw for next summer’s tournament is made in Moscow, he may be wishing he hadn’t. “The general feeling I get from the authorities is, ‘Let’s get this over with,’” says Sven Daniel Wolfe, expert on Russian sporting politics at Lausanne University.
When Russia began bidding for the tournament, it was a different country. In 2008 I flew to Moscow for the Chelsea v Manchester United Champions League final. Anyone holding a match ticket could enter Russia without a visa, which was a first in modern history. I whizzed through customs at renovated Domodedovo airport in minutes; much smoother than entering the US. Moscow’s restaurants were packed, and that week the Russian stock market hit a record high. The match was beautifully organised. The bloke in the hotel room opposite mine was Putin’s chum Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president.
Two months later, Russia reached the semi-finals of the European Championship, prompting Moscow’s largest spontaneous street celebrations since 1945. Weeks later, Russia’s army invaded Georgia. The west barely pushed back. In March 2009, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton gave her Russian counterpart a ceremonial red button marked “reset” in English and “peregruzka” in Russian (which doesn’t actually mean “reset”, but “overload”). Putin must have imagined the 2018 World Cup as his version of China’s 2008 Beijing Olympics: a coming-out party for a well-off, confident, modern power.
Before Fifa’s executive committee voted on the host of the World Cup, he met about six of its 22 members. On December 2 2010, Fifa chose Russia. For Putin, that day may prove the peak of the whole nine-year project. Since then his country’s image in the west has collapsed following Russia’s wars in Ukraine and Syria, its economic decline, an Olympic doping scandal, and meddling in western elections. Seven in 10 Americans view Russia unfavourably, the most since Gallup began surveying the issue in 1989. Anyway, the US — the country against which Russia obsessively measures itself, according to Wolfe — will largely ignore the World Cup, having failed to qualify. Few European viewers will believe Russia’s self-presentation. The thousands of visiting journalists (surely the largest foreign press contingent ever to spend a month in Russia) are likely to pump out the negative coverage that Russians call zloradstvo (evil-revelling).
Russia will presumably host a smooth World Cup, but that feat carries little prestige since even Jacob Zuma’s South Africa managed it in 2010. And though western countries don’t boycott World Cups, few of their politicians, sponsors and fans will come.
Still, Putin’s core audience is always Russians, not foreigners. “The World Cup is to tell Russians, ‘Look how great we are,’” says Manuel Veth, editor of the Futbolgrad website, which covers the former USSR. Putin aims to use sport to coax Russians into healthier lifestyles, says Constantin Gurdgiev, economist at Trinity College Dublin. The fading out of the heavy-drinking older generation helps. He also hopes to woo young people who have detached from the state, adds Gurdgiev. Young working-class Russians, he says, mostly follow domestic football, whereas the educated young prefer foreign teams, but both should enjoy next summer’s party.
However, the Russians who will enjoy it most are the well-connected businesspeople who built the infrastructure. St Petersburg’s stadium alone cost Rbs44bn (£560m), which is seven times the original estimate. It opened nine years late and still isn’t quite ready, despite the use of North Korean forced labourers. Putin needs to keep enriching his cronies. In return, he’ll get to show off lots of swish new buildings, even in poor host cities such as Volgograd and Kaliningrad, says Sylvain Dufraisse of Nantes University. He can dramatise his law-and-order credentials by cleansing stadiums of the Russian hooligans who disfigured Euro 2016 in France. He can also boast that his show went on despite western sanctions.