Populism and political motives for hosting the FIFA World Cup: Comparing England 1966 and Russia 2018

Alex G. Gillett and Kevin D. Tennent


As a popular field of endeavour, sport has always been exploitable for political capital. As modern sport emerged as a commercial enterprise open to entrepreneurs, opportunities for its exploitation by power elites increased (Hardy, 1986). Large sporting events, described as “mega-events”, involve large-scale project management of resources, often involving public infrastructure (Flyvbjerg, 2014). Flyvbjerg identifies such large projects as often risky regarding finance and reputation because they involve many players, longitudinal timescales, and finance of a scale that often requires public subsidy. He extends Frick (2008) by summarising four “sublimes” (or motives) for investing in mega-projects:

  • Technological Sublime: The excitement that engineers and technologists get in pushing the envelope for what is possible in “longest-tallest-fast-est” types of projects.
  • Political Sublime: The rapture politicians get from building monuments to themselves and for their causes, and from the visibility this generates with the public and media.
  • Economic Sublime: The delight businesspeople and trade unions get from making lots of money and jobs off mega-projects, including money made for contractors, workers in construction and transportation, consultants, bankers, investors, landowners, lawyers and developers.
  • Aesthetic Sublime: The pleasure designers and people who love good design get from building and using something very large that is also iconic and beautiful, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco.

Gillett and Tennent (2017) extend the sublimes, by asserting that the Political Sublime involves not only the politics of national and local governance, but also that of sports governing bodies such as Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). They identify these sublimes as dynamic, as opportunities present themselves to be exploited by actors, who often change in the longgestation process of a mega-event. The multi-faceted investment in sporting mega-events by populist figures, parties, and governments is discussed by several in this volume: Jacob Bustad discusses Greece (Chapter 6); Simon Martin discusses Italy (Chapter 7); Renata Toledo and Bryan Clift discuss Brazil (Chapters 8 and 9, respectively); and Adam Beissel and David Andrews discuss the USA (Chapter 15). This phenomenon is arguably more pronounced in representative democratic systems such as the bipartisan “first past the post” political system found in English speaking countries, which allow for the relatively frequent transfer of power between broad coalitions of political actors without violence. The USA enshrines a four-year political cycle while post-war United Kingdom (UK) saw relatively frequent general elections, often taking place before the notional five-year parliamentary term had ended.

Such cyclical political systems present an opportunity for a different form of populism to those found in the authoritarian or dictatorial systems seen in Latin America or 1930s Europe (Skidmore & Smith, 2005; Merriman, 1996). Since the 1990s there has been a trend in European democratic systems of “outsider” parties starting small, apparently with views outside of the conventional spectrum. Swank and Betz (2003) relate right-wing populism to the growth of globalisation; to some extent such parties were a response to a shift in emphasis towards the “middle ground” by mainstream parties, which leaves gaps or vacuums around specific issues such as immigration or industrial planning. However, the emphasis on the middle ground can itself be viewed as a form of populism as mainstream politicians sought to consolidate their grip by capturing the Zeitgeist.

For example, in the mid-1990s the leader of the British Labour Party, Tony Blair, tapped into the revival of British popular culture in the fields of music and sport under the banner of “Cool Britannia.” This revival was encouraged by England hosting the Euro ’96 football (soccer) tournament and the relative success of its team (which reached the semi-finals) stimulating reminiscence and a feel-good factor about England’s famous 1966 World Cup victory, the last time that England had hosted a major international football tournament (Tennent &. Gillett, 2016). To some extent Blair was capitalising on decisions made under prior governments, for example to provide certain assurances to football’s governing bodies in exchange for hosting the tournament, and also the introduction of a National Lottery partly to provide a non-governmental funding stream for sports, heritage, arts and culture. Following the example of 1966, existing stadiums upgraded following the 1990 Taylor Report - which recommended all-seated facilities and better health and safety provision - were used to host the Euro ’96 tournament. This contributed to the re-launch of English football in the 1990s to appeal to a broad family focused, higher value and middle-class demographic (Home Office, 1990). Leveraging these policies partly helped Blair to upstage sitting Prime Minister John Major and propel himself to power in the 1997 General Election. Less successful attempts by UK politicians to use sport to capture the Zeitgeist have been provided by Boris Johnson, who memorably attempted to exploit World Cup mania in 2006 by appearing in a televised charity football game, then fronting London’s preparations for the 2012 Olympics by dangling from a zipwire holding two union flags. Similarly, former Prime Minister David Cameron gaffed by proclaiming his support for West Ham United when he had previously announced his support for Aston Villa (the team also supported by Prince William, and which perhaps confusingly wears similar colours to Aston Villa).

Investigative journalism and academic studies indicate that politicians find it useful, or indeed necessary, to legitimise regimes by connecting them to football, the world’s pre-eminent game. In particular, the FIFA World Cup as the peak global spectacle of football has been exploited as a platform for such legitimisation efforts (Goldblatt, 2019).

We now report the case of the 1966 FIFA World Cup final, held in England. Government support was awarded after England had been chosen to host the tournament, in order to achieve several political and economic objectives around boosting inward currency, and trade exports, particularly in the region, as well as showcasing the country’s national plan of infrastructure and economic development on an international stage. We then offer some contrasts with the case of Russia 2018, the most contemporary at the time of writing.

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