The politics behind the pageantry of the World Cup

As the World Cup kicks off in Russia, it is clear that football everywhere has become deeply political.

Putin MBS
Russian President Vladimir Putin, FIFA President Gianni Infantino and the Saudi crown prince watch the first match of the FIFA 2018 World Cup [Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters]

The World Cup in Russia has only just started, with the hosts scoring five goals in their thrashing of Saudi Arabia at the opening match, but without a doubt, the best goal – so far – was scored by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the FIFA Congress held in Moscow on Wednesday.

We are used, of course, to heads of state, prime ministers, even heirs to various thrones prostrating themselves before FIFA, and to the suggestion that the organisation holds the whip hand over the hosts of its World Cup.

Russia has certainly signed on to the usual onerous World Cup contract, with all economic costs, temporary suspension of sovereignty, and tax exemptions for FIFA that it details. However, as Putin’s intervention at the Congress suggests, FIFA may finally have met its match.

The real balance of power was made clear when FIFA President Gianni Infantino, somewhere between items 6.7 and 6.8 on the agenda, informed the Congress that they would not be moving on because the president of the Russian Federation was popping in.

Having stopped FIFA in its tracks, Putin’s approach work was magnificent: shaking hands, working the room, charming the crowd and soaking up the applause. Then he took to the rostrum to say – straight-faced and straight to goal – that “sport is beyond politics”.

One could interpret this as mere duplicity, for it is transparently obvious that sport in general and football, in particular, have been important elements of Putin’s political armoury; from Gazprom’s European empire of football sponsorships, to the manipulation and use of hooligan gangs as street muscle, to the soft power politics of hosting mega-events.

However, there is a more generous reading; it could be argued that the president has, unwittingly perhaps, touched on a deeper truth; that sport is not merely beyond politics but has transcended and absorbed it, for, in the new world sporting order, football has, in every corner of the globe and almost every part of its being, become deeply and profoundly political.

In this respect, the 2018 World Cup is the latest example of a trend reaching back into the 1980s in which governments, politicians, political parties and social movements, all long interested in football, have made it an essential element of their politics.

Silvio Berlusconi wrote the playbook in the 1980s as he exchanged the presidency of AC Milan for the prime minister’s office in Italy. Today, Viktor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, have made playing football part of their personal mythologies and launched huge stadium building programmes to help create a class of pliant construction oligarchs.

Thus the perceptible rise in politicians’ engagement with the game has not been merely symbolic or an exercise in grandstanding – though there has been plenty of that. The game has increasingly become an object of state policy and intervention, from the government-ordained league of Myanmar’s military government to Saudi Arabia’s club privatisation programme, to Argentina’s nationalisation of football’s television rights.

Consider just four of the heads of state present for the opening game in the VIP box at the Luzhniki Stadium. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, in power since 2003, has channelled huge amounts of his nation’s oil wealth into staging sporting mega-events, building the requisite expensive stadiums, sponsoring the Spanish club Atletico Madrid and generally laundering the country’s poor human rights record.

For President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, shifting from the Asian Football Confederation to its European counterpart UEFA was deemed a national priority, and the creation of a presidential suite of sports clubs in the capital Astana, including a new football club, has been generously funded by the public purse. 

President Evo Morales actually cut his teeth as football player, coach and administrator in the indigenous and trade union teams of the mountains of Bolivia, and as president has signed three part-time professional contracts, and made FIFA’s now-rescinded ban on high altitude international football (which threatened the playing of matches in La Paz at 3,637 metres above the sea), a populist cause celebre.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is, as anyone familiar with his Twitter feed will know, a long-standing and serious supporter of the London-based club Arsenal; and for £30m, his country is now Arsenal’s shirt sleeve sponsor.

One can only hope that they were detained by matters of state during the opening ceremony. Sochi 2014 was a real hundred-million dollar movie, a peculiar, and at times surreal, Cyrillic alphabet of Russian icons and triumphs, and however one feels about the reinvigoration of a more imperially-minded Russia, it was a political spectacle worth watching.

That was then, and everyone is now well aware that Russia is a serious player in international affairs. Different times call for different messages. At the World Cup opening ceremony, pomp was replaced by pop, the bellicose by balm; this was a segment of a Saturday night variety show on Russian state TV – preening pop stars who sing for oligarchs, opera divas, jugglers and acrobats, and the kind of cloying sentimentality that thinks the Ronaldo-mascot-cute kid routine might go down well.

Normal wholesome entertainment from a normal wholesome country. It was, at least mercifully short, leaving plenty of time for Putin and Infantino to make their welcoming addresses. Putin kept to this script but Infantino couldn’t resist a little flourish: “Football is going to conquer Russia.” The evidence of the last few decades, and of this World Cup, so far, suggests quite the contrary; that politics, in Russia and almost everywhere else, has conquered football.

For more of David Goldblatt’s insightful and incisive commentary on the world of football, listen to Game of Our Lives from Al Jazeera’s Jetty Studios. You can hear the latest episode in the player below. The podcast airs twice-a-week during the World Cup. Subscribe now!

Source: Al Jazeera