No doubt, the next FIFA World Cup will be thrilling for the soccer fans: Lionel Messi saved his team on his own, the Spanish team will make the show and newcomers will participate, for instance Iceland. But the event will also offer a formidable playground to political scientists: international sport events (the Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup, the Euro Tournament, etc.) enjoy global intensive media coverage.
Edition after edition, they acquired an economic, political and symbolic status in the collective representations. For instance the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing highlighted the new global role of China and the 2012 Euro Tournament jointly organised by Poland and Ukraine changed the status of the two countries in the continent. The next FIFA World Cup will have a particular signification: the time (14th June-15th July) and the place (Russia) will give the Russian Federation a global audience. It will also place the country and the Putin regime under the scrutiny of the world during several weeks. Four major issues already emerge on the geopolitical scene.
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Russia: avoid the failures of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games
From the Russian point of view, the key objective will be to ensure the best PR operation possible. The Winter Games, hosted by the Russian Federation in Sochi in 2014, left a mitigated impression in that respect. On the sportive side, Russia reached the highest level of the podium with 13 gold medals, just before Norway.
But on the political side, the victory was far less obvious: the annexation of Crimea on 18th March 2017, the degradation of gay rights in Russia, the start of war in Donbass war, etc. triggered fierce criticisms on Russia from all over the world. The global PR operation was largely overshadowed by the cancellation of the G8 Summit scheduled in Sochi in March 2018 and the European and US sanctions on Russia. In 2018, the first goal of Russia will be to avoid such mishaps for its international image. Russia will probably stonewall on the communication field.
EU: preserve the team spirit
The European major national teams qualified for the competition: Germany, Poland, France, Spain, etc. Their respective public authorities are now to define their tactics on the diplomatic field.
Are they to play hardball? It was the case in 2014 when Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and EU Commissioner Reding refused to attend the competition as a sign of protest concerning Crimea. Or are they to soften their game? They could chose to deploy a high level official representation in Russia in order to give a chance to the diplomatic work. Indeed, one can hope that Russia will give signs of goodwill on Ukraine in the run up to the competition. Will the EU State-members even be in a position to define a common position on the event?
What is at stake here is of the utmost importance for the EU and its Eastern Partnership: the Russian authorities will scrutinize any hint of dissension within the EU, the internal EU debates on the sanctions on Russia will be affected by the respective diplomatic gestures of the Member-states. No doubt that the Baltic States, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will closely observe the diplomatic ballet in the VIP areas of the stadiums.
Finance: “nation branding” for international investors
On the financial lever, the key issue will be to display a certain level of sobriety in the organization costs. Indeed the Russian economy is still ailing. Since 2014, the Russian GDP shrinked by 3%. And the public financial resource are still strained due to the fall of the international oil price. We have to bear in mind that, in 2010, when Russia was elected host nation for the FIFA 2018 World Cup, the barrel price was around $US 70, whereas it remains around 50 US$ today after a fall to 30US$ in 2016.
The primary concern is to show the world that national prestige can get along with rigorous financial management. It was not the case in 2014 when financial scandals arose concerning the Sochi installations. Russia already tried to cut the bill, by reducing the number of arenas from 16 to 11. Will it be enough to attract the international investors Russia desperately needs in order to diversify its economy?
Putin’s 4th mandate: towards a global triumph for the team leader?
On the domestic political scene, the FIFA World Cup will have a central place. The competition will take place a few months after the presidential election (18th March and 8th April 2018). The victory of President Putin is very likely but the stakes remain high for him, in a system where domestic opposition is of little weight and international status is of primary importance. The FIFA World Cup will then take place during the beginning of his 4th mandate. The event will undoubtedly play a key role in the new thrust the presidential administration is seeking.
A undisputed communication success would offer the President a unique pulpit on the world stage: Moscow is undergoing a massive makeover, the stadiums have been modernized and the location of the matches in European Russia has been carefully chosen in order to attract supporters from all over the continent. A victory of the Russian national team on 15th July in the Luzhniki Stadium under the eyes of the global media would undoubtedly bolster the image of the President.
But, if a terrorist attack takes place, as it was the case in April 2017 in St. Petersburg, if several prominent political leaders decline the invitation, if the European soccer supporters avoid the competition or if financial or organizational scandals break out, the PR communication can rapidly turn sour for the Russian team leader.