How has football been used by politicians and powerful figures in Russia?
If you are a powerful figure and you’re investing in football it’s for two reasons: because you love the game and to get political or social credibility. When oligarchs or companies invest in football clubs they use that as social currency and as a marketing vehicle to promote themselves. If you’re a company that’s important for commercial reasons, but if you’re an oligarch that’s also very important because it makes you look like someone who gives back. Fans have a very interesting outlook when it comes to their sport. They understand that it might be corrupt, but if the money helps their team win they are willing to overlook that. For oligarchs it’s a way to build social capital, which they’ll need if they want to influence the political climate.
Putin with World Cup courtesy of Kremlin.ru (CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
What are Russia’s political aims hosting the World Cup?
There are similarities between what an oligarch might gain from being associated with a local team and what a government hopes to get from hosting a World Cup. An event like this puts you on the world stage. The hope is that at least for the duration of the tournament you can get a lot of positive press nationally and internationally.
When Russia bid for the tournament in 2010, the chances of getting something beneficial out of the tournament seemed much better than they do today. It’s really interesting how the political landscape has changed because of what happened in South Africa and Brazil after their tournaments. In Brazil it was supposed to strengthen the political elite that was in power. The president at the time, Dilma Roussef, was very much the face of the tournament. Whilst there were issues with planning and security in the lead up to the tournament, once it started Brazil went from victory to victory and a lot of the negative commentary fell away. Then came the semi-final with Germany where they suffered an embarrassing defeat and that really took the shine away from the tournament. The team’s failure meant attention went back to all the problems with corruption and all of a sudden this wasn’t a shining light for the political elite any more, it was a problem. Vladimir Putin has looked at Brazil, he’s seen the similarities and realised the potential problems. If Russia had the chance of bidding for the world cup today I don’t think they would do it, because the political risks are too high.
So Russia has learnt from Brazil. It’s much better prepared. The stadiums are all ready. The infrastructure is very good. The cities hosting games are ready for the fans. But, whilst Putin is often at events when a stadium opens, he’s not associating himself with the national team like the Brazilian government was doing four years ago. The Russian national team is very poor right now and they could very well have that Germany moment at some point in the tournament. So the political elite aren’t thinking about doing well in the tournament. They really just want to be good hosts and have the tournament over and done with, make what political capital they can and then move on from it.
What are the likely political outcomes of the world cup for Putin?
I’m fascinated by this because I remember Brazil and South Africa and both times we did see political change afterwards. It’s less likely to happen in Russia, because the Putin government is very strong and the majority of the people are behind it. The interesting thing will be to see the impact of thousands of foreigners coming into the country. The government has given out free train tickets for spectators so they will be travelling and speaking to local people. It’s a different dynamic to the Sochi Olympics, for example, which was an isolated event in a small town on the Black Sea. Now all of a sudden you have foreigners travelling to the ten biggest cities in Russia, meeting people, making friends. This is important because any kind of opposition that you have to Putin right now is in those major city centres. If there is political change coming from the world cup it’s going to be because of the interaction and the openness that a tournament like this brings. A million people travelling around the country for four weeks, that’s something that Russia has never experienced before. I’m looking forward to reporting on the stories that come out of it on futbolgrad.com.