FIFA 2018 World Cup, Russia

We now examine Russia, which hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Goldblatt (2019) identifies football as an increasingly important tool for President Putin’s regime as the ownership of the country’s clubs has been taken over by its oligarchs and state-owned companies. He identifies how the relationship between state and football began as a “marriage of convenience” and evolved into a chance to showcase the regime to a global audience. To explain the 2018 case, it is first useful to provide some background.

Economically, from the early 1990s the implementation of a market-based system had been followed by a currency collapse coupled with high inflation. To many Russians, the “new” so-called democratic and capitalist system was not suitable - even though the Russian version of capitalist democracy had been more Soviet than “Western” in its nature, with the Communist party maintaining a majority in parliament. Vladimir Putin was made President in 2000, and in contrast to his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, was perceived by many to have resisted absorption by “the West” and appealed to the populist element in the Russian vote. Putin, like Soviet era leaders, used sport tactically to support his rhetoric of Russian strength (Arjakovsky, 2017; Gorst, 2014).

Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, claimed by Putin to be the world’s positive judgement on Russia, because such an event could only be organised by a global power (MacFarquhar, 2018). The host city, Sochi, was transformed at great cost (reportedly US$50 billion - the most expensive Olympics ever) from seaside resort to modern, Olympic standard sports hub to symbolise Russian progress (Gorst, 2014). However much the Sochi games appealed to sports fans and Russian voters, Western leaders including President Obama (USA) and Prime Minister Cameron (UK) resisted attending the event, “apparently in protest at the Kremlin’s suppression of human rights”, whilst other critics alleged corruption and cronyism (Gorst, 2014). Perhaps most controversially, during the period of the Sochi Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, Russia flexed its military muscle (seemingly leveraging the global publicity brought about by the Games) to annex the Crimean Peninsula, previously an autonomous region within Ukraine (Arjakovsky, 2017). Putin’s popularity soared, rising from around 60% to 80% within the year (BBC, 2018a).

In 2010, Russia had also been awarded hosting rights for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. England had also bid to host, represented by a number of political and sporting experts and administrators, former footballers (David Beckham) and even royalty (Prince William), as well as others with political connections, such as Lord Sebastian Coe (Gibson, 2010).

After the financial cost of Sochi, its apparent use as a platform upon which to deploy military intervention, as well as subsequent introduction of laws deemed discriminatory by Western standards, there were concerns as to what might happen at a Russian World Cup (e.g., Senett, 2018). As well as speculation about foreign policy there was also concern about the geographic span of the tournament, threats of terrorism, hooliganism and security, infrastructure, racism and doping (Walker, 2016).

Despite the cost, which “mushroomed from an initial estimate of around $640 million to some $11 billion” (MacFarquhar, 2018), the tournament ultimately appeared to run smoothly, with fears of political, economic or military controversies averted. Russia used the tournament to instead showcase itself in the image of an efficiently organised and peaceful destination. The extent to which the spotlight was on Russia is evidenced by some facts and figures relating to media broadcasting, attendances at the stadiums, and inward tourism.

A television audience of 34.66 billion people was recorded, and although this total was 5.1% lower than the overall figure of 36.52 billion who had tuned in to the previous 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it still comprised an increase in the Asian and European audiences (FIFA, 2018a). Goldblatt (2018a) reports that in Iceland, 99.6% of viewers were watching their game with Argentina, while England’s opening game with Tunisia attracted the country’s biggest audience of the year, with six million more viewing it than did for the wedding of Prince Harry.

Regarding stadium attendances for the games, FIFA (2018b) report an aggregate of 3,031,768 including spectators, hospitality, media/broadcasting, and other constituent groups. Whilst this was the lowest since the 2002 edition co-hosted between Korea Republic and Japan, it still claimed over 98% stadium occupancy, and ranks as the sixth highest of the 21 editions to date. Russians were unsurprisingly allocated the most tickets (1,175,592). England was the tenth largest market for ticket allocations (35,295 tickets). The “business” of Russia 2018 was impressive, but the legacy of the tournament was not only financial - there was also an official sustainability strategy to address social, economic and environmental concerns associated with holding a sporting mega-event,2 and to leverage a broader bottom-line (e.g., Elkington, 1999).

There were interesting predictions for tourism relating to the event, with Russia viewed by some commentators as a sleeping giant, and the World Cup a great opportunity. Up to a million tourists were predicted during the event by market research firm Euromonitor (Gedvilas & Rowman, 2018) which also suggested a positive stimulation for incoming tourism to Russia in the following years. Magazine National (geographic (Kamenar, 2018) and UK newspaper The Independent (Calder, 2018) heralded the waiving of Russia’s usual visa requirements (replaced by special Fan IDs) and the provision of free trains between host cities and free transportation to games. By making Russia more accessible to overseas tourists, the country showcased itself to a potential larger number of international visitors than usual and generated positive public relations and political capital for the controversial Putin presidency (Calder, 2018).

Apart from cheap and convenient travel infrastructure, the overall “world cup experience” was enhanced by the “FIFA Fan Fest”, which has been part of the Official Programme of the FIFA World Cup since the 2006 edition in Germany. FIFA figures state that 7.7 million visitors attended these events at Russia 2018, a significant increase on the 5.2 million fans at the 2014 edition in Brazil. These free-of-charge events enabled fans to consume televised live football as well as cultural entertainment (, 2018). Some commentators have been more critical in their summation of the Russian approach. Goldblatt (2018b) observed the pattern of using football for political purposes, and highlighted the economic costs involved, temporary suspension of sovereignty, and tax exemptions for FIFA that typify the hosting of a modern-day World Cup. Goldblatt (2018a) compares the Russian hosting to a form of distractive performance. Security forces tolerated “hitherto unacceptable levels of public assembly and drunkenness” in tourist zones, but on the other hand, the withdrawal of rented space for FARE’S (Football Against Racism and Extremism) Diversity House was deemed to be a “classic” example of how Russia manages it opponents. Furthermore, Goldblatt (2018a) claims the decision of the Russian government to announce that they would be raising the country’s pension age was timed to coincide with the opening of the tournament, and that the opposition leader “called for protests in 20 non-World Cup cities, where some modicum of freedom of assembly might pertain” but questioned whether they would receive due attention from the media “and if they will be policed with the same kind of laxity that the craziness around football has been receiving.” The protests were ultimately organised for after the tournament had ended, though the reforms were still passed, even with President Putin’s approval rating having declined to a level approximately the same as it had been prior to the Crimea intervention (BBC, 2018a).

The sideshow comparison is further supported by Mathews (2018) writing for The Spectator, who made similar points about the World Cup acting as a distraction from deeper-rooted problems, showcasing the country “as a vibrant, safe and strong nation” whilst masking vast reductions in schools, hospitals, and living space declared unfit for habitation, whilst the bureaucracy has itself almost doubled in size from 1.2 million personnel to 2.2 million at the time of the article. Whilst these figures might be explained as the result of increased efficiencies and productivity, other measures suggest otherwise: “Despite years of high oil prices, Russia’s GDP remains in real terms smaller than it was in 1990. China’s economy, over the same period, has more than quadrupled; America’s has nearly doubled” (Mathews, 2018).

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