The World Cup: So Much More Than Soccer

“In America soccer is something you pick your ten-year-old daughter up from. But for me and everyone else on earth, it’s a little more important,” John Oliver once said in his Last Week Tonight show. It’s been two weeks since the first kickoff of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and while many Americans are ambivalent, the rest of the world has been frantically watching their national teams battle towards the knockout round that starts Saturday, June 30. But the World Cup is much too big a global event to be only about soccer. Before it even began, the World Cup turned into a political event since soccer has become political. As David Goldblatt writes in Al Jazeera, “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.” Also, Russia is the host this year, so of course everything is politicized.

It may seem strange to anyone unfamiliar with FIFA, which organizes the World Cup, and the enormity of the event that it can have serious implications on political policy. Just remember the soccer games themselves draw about 3-4 billion viewers. That’s about half of the entire global population fixing their eyes on one country and one event. This means that the host country is scrutinized for months, even years, before kickoff because the financial and political ramifications can affect the country and global politics.

There is a real risk in hosting the World Cup, both financially and politically. There is a huge financial burden on the host country because FIFA regulations require the country to provide about 12 stadiums to hold at least 40,000 fans and one stadium that holds 80,000. For the 2014 World Cup, the preparations cost Brazil about $15 billion, but their return was only about $13 billion. Thus far, Russia has spent $11 billion in preparation. Though FIFA and Russia originally predicted that the attention and tourism from the World Cup could bring in about $31 billion into Russia’s economy from 2013 to 2023, recent reports and economic studies from analysts at credit rating agency Moody’s Investors Service said that the economic impact will fall short of Russia’s hopes and be short lived, not long-term like originally predicted.

“We see very limited economic impact at the national level given the limited duration of the World Cup and the very large size of the country’s economy,” Moody analysts told Reuters. “While the extra boost in tourism will benefit Russia’s already healthy external accounts, the added support will likely be short-lived.”

The World Cup is also not without its political risks. In the past it has become a backdrop for political strategy and protests. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina stands out famously since it was during the leadership of General Jorge Rafael Videla. Argentina was fraught with internal chaos under Videla’s cruel dictatorship. He was suspected of human rights violations including torture, kidnapping, and homicide. He was later convicted of these, but in 1978 he used the World Cup to charge Argentina with national pride and fervor. During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the protests and continual booing of President Dilma Rousseff led to her universal unpopularity and eventual impeachment in 2016.

In view of the risks and the international spotlight that the World Cup provides, how is Russia handling it all? This could have been the perfect opportunity for this controversial and influential country to enhance its global image. But, instead, Russia’s previous political embroilments led to several countries’ governmental representatives boycotting the World Cup. The World Cup Final is typically well attended by heads of state, but the UK declared it will not send any officials or members of the royal family, even Prince William who is the president of the Football Association. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that members of the European Parliament wrote a letter calling on EU leaders to back the UK boycott. They wrote, “While we agree that sport can help build metaphorical bridges, as long as Putin is blowing up real ones in Syria, we cannot pretend this World Cup is just like any other major sporting event.”

Australia has also joined this boycott, and only its ambassador in Moscow will attend the games. ESPN reported that Australia still protests Russia’s “direct involvement” in the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, which killed 27 Australians, and “has regularly protested against Russian human rights abuses and international law breaches, including the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.”

With these boycotts and political controversies over Russia and the World Cup, many are calling this the most politicized World Cup in history. But Putin does not seem too concerned about the tensions and boycotts. As Bill Browder told Bloomberg Businessweek in regards to the UK boycott, “This is a huge philosophical victory for Putin. He knows most British people will care more about their football than the politics of Russia.” Thousands still made the pilgrimage to Russia, and billions are watching from afar. Soccer is still more precious than the politics. And Putin knows that. As he told FIFA when the games began, “sport is beyond politics.”

Abigail Liebing is an intern at Providence and a student at Hillsdale College, pursuing a B.A. in History and a minor in Journalism.

Photo credit: Meeting of the 2018 Football World Cup Organising Committee’s Supervisory Board, via Wikipedia

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