What next for research of populism and the FIFA World Cup?

Table of Contents:

The projection of soft power through football mega-events is clearly another objective worthy of deeper examination. Tennent and Gillett (2019) have already considered some aspects of this related to the 1966 World Cup and Latin America, while more contemporary events, including Qatar 2022 and Brazil 2014 respectively, have been considered by Brannagan and Giulianotti (2018) and Grix, Brannagan and Houlihan (2015). We suggest that this topic presents an interesting way forward for the study of populism and megaprojects, as regimes attempt to legitimise themselves globally.

Flyvbjerg’s (2014) Political Sublime provides a useful theoretical space for this development. Mega-projects from the Panama Canal to the Channel Tunnel are notoriously fickle, are usually subject to cost overruns, affect the interests of multiple stakeholders, and in democratic systems, often controversial because they require public funding or bailouts. Politicians may also mislead about the economic or social outcomes of such a project in order to benefit from the rapture of holding it, and in a system like that in Russia where institutions are young and flexible and thus can be bent to serve the interests of those in power some of the democratic concerns of stakeholders can be suppressed or overlooked. The FIFA World Cup has since its inception in 1930 been a project that politicians, sometimes authoritarian, have sought to gain rapture from, perhaps most notoriously the 1934 tournament in Mussolini’s Italy which aimed to boost sport, tourism and national propaganda distracting from an increasingly aggressive and expansionist foreign policy (Tennent & Gillett, 2016) - see also Simon Martin’s Chapter 7 for an extended discussion of sport and populism in Italy, including Mussolini. Later in the twentieth century, the Argentinian military junta used the 1978 tournament to distract attention from the forceful and violent suppression of opposition (Smith, 2002) - we should therefore not be surprised that more modern regimes seek to use the World Cup project to build legitimacy at home and abroad too. These cases clearly represent opportunities for future research into the Political Sublime of the World Cup and other sporting mega-events.


  • 1 For a more detailed breakdown of how the £500,000 was spent, see Tennent and Gillett (2016), pp. 87-109.
  • 2 See Gillett and Tennent, 2017 for a review of typical criticisms.


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