What kind of role does politics play in sport?

In a few days one of the world’s largest sporting events commences: the FIFA Football World Cup, this year held in Russia. With the recurrence of the World Cup in a new city every four years, we find ourselves debating how close or far politics should be from big soccer events.

Putin’s Russia (which is not all of Russia) is many things. Democracy, minority protection and international rule observance would not come to mind quickly when describing today’s Russia.

So when global soccer teams−with media, fans and commercial interests in tow−stream to Moscow and other Russian cities, we should think about how to frame this event:

Are these Putin’s games, or the festival for the youth of the world? Is this a gigantic media event, or will we encounter islands of authenticity? Can we separate the event from the Russian political context, or should we use the opportunity and talk on the spot about Crimea, Syria, and doping? And should political leaders of the world who care about values go to Russia and cheer for their teams, or not?

-Klaus Segbers

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  1. Andrey Makarychev 2 months ago

    On the one hand, this is a FIFA event, and it is FIFA that establishes rules and regulations concerning all technical requirements, as well as promotes the event globally. In many respects - including legal ones - Russia subordinates parts of its cherished sovereignty to an international sport organisation and voluntarily reports to it on a number of issues - tempo of construction works, development of tourist infrastructure, security provision, and so forth, But on the other hand, Russia as the host country is definitely eager to take advantage of this huge feast of football of global standing and visibility. Kremlin's major goal, as I see it, is to use the FIFA Cup for "normalising" Russia, a country who is under severe international sanctions and who faces unprecedented isolation in relations with the West. Besides, when it comes specifically to sport domain, due to the doping scandal Russia for the first time in its history was banned from participation in the winter Olympics and partly accepted the guilt.
    Under these conditions it would be wise if Western leaders approach the 2018 Cup as a FIFA event in which Russia is simply a contracted partner responsible for organisational matters. I don't see any reasons for heads of states or governments to travel to Russia and officially attend its opening ceremony; this non-attendance would be helpful for keeping sports at a relative distance from politics. Apart from this logic, let's not forget that the borderline between soft and hard powers in Russia is not always neat and clear: it was only a few weeks after the Sochi Olympics that Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in Donbas.

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  2. Dmytro Sherengovsky 2 months ago

    International sports competitions are always connected with political issues, being perfect instruments of states' soft power and creating the "image of power" for the international or domestic consumption (f.e. Sochi 2014). Moreover, such events can serve as a tool for 'legitimization' of the political regimes (Kosovo membership in UEFA and FIFA). Moreover, current Russian doping scandals could be considered as an example, that fair play is not so important than political benefits for Putin's regime. Thus, it is practically impossible to have pure sport, separated from politics in the modern international competitions. Therefore, being a not only sport's clash, World Soccer Cup, could and should be used to send uncomfortable messages to Putin's regime. Number of political leaders (the United Kingdom, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Ukraine etc) have already declared that they will not attend the games of their national teams to show official Moscow their political attitude towards Russian aggression in Ukraine, Syria and recent Skrypal's murder. Definitely, such diplomatic boycott will not change Russian behavior but will serve as a tool to reassure joint position of West. Pragmatically, this is maximum that could be done, as full sport's boycott will not only harm public support of national governments but also cause disqualification of national teams from further competitions according to current FIFA's rules.

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  3. Stefan Engert 2 months ago

    In contrast to the Olympic Games – in the year 1980, the games in Moscow were boycotted due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in the subsequent Olympic year 1984, the games in Los Angeles were boycotted as a response to the former boycott (!) –, the soccer world cup (WC) has not yet been boycotted for political reasons or at least not exactly: In 1950 India wanted to play barefoot, but weren’t allowed to do so, as a consequence they decided not to participate. In 1964, the Confederation of African Football withdrew all its teams from the qualification round to the WC in England (1966) because the confederation had been allocated only one place as a starter – and even that would have had to be played-off. Yugoslavia was suspended from the WC in 1994 as part of United Nations’ sanctions, yet, that’s the reverse argument.
    Shall politics boycott mega-sports events? On this occasion, IOC President Thomas Bach always likes to add that governments should not send political messages “on the backs of their athletes”. Is it really that easy? The upcoming WC in Qatar 2022 has been criticized for its human rights situation and workers’ conditions. Quite similar to the actual situation, already the suitability of Russia as a host nation for the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi (2014) was heavily debated because of its treatment of minorities (e.g. the Circassians), LGBT rights, and the scandal regarding the state-sponsored doping program. This time (WC 2018) the criticism is similar and reads like a repetition of 2014: racism, LGBT rights, state doping, yet, also the controversies regarding the Skripal poisoning and the Malaysia Airlines flight 17, not to mention the ad interim annexation of Crimea as well as the massive troop deployment in the Ukrainian Donbass region. Last time Germany’s President Joachim Gauck refused to visit; this time there are even more reasons to do so, but a boycott is not on the discursive agenda.
    Why is that? International sporting events cost a lot. In return, they bring prestige and profile to the host nation, which can present itself as an open society and modern state. Whilst often referring to the Olympic Games in Berlin 1936, it is argued that autocratic regimes in particular do so for political staging. And, indeed, Russia more or less marched into Crimea during the closing ceremony of the 2014 Olympics. So should we really use mega-sports events to discuss democracy and human rights issues with the host nation? I am not saying that this is not an honorable endeavor, but symbolic actions won’t change anything – neither short nor long term. I would suggest not overestimating the importance of sport: Sport primarily is entertainment – no more, no less – and the political responsibility of sport is sport, not politics. If it is something more, it is business – politics it is not, for sure. I end this blog with a tongue-in-check, i.e. a slightly vicious quote from George Orwell, who once said that football “has nothing to do with fair play. It is […] war minus the shooting.”

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  4. Alexei Voskressenski 2 months ago

    This is a gigantic media event. And to answer the question about politics is also not too difficult: enlightened authoritarianism in an opening country is better than a rigid authoritarian sotto governo in a declining empire. To care about values does not mean to completely isolate a great country and to punish its people.

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  5. Stephanie von Kanel 2 months ago

    As alluded to in the synopsis, this is a gigantic media event and it is likely to have ramifications. Whether there will be authentic discourse regarding the event and the host nation, it seems islands of authenticity have already formed through decisions to boycott the games; initiated by Britain and followed by Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Australia, and Japan. While decisions of these states have largely been political, in certain cases they have also been reflective of players discontent at Russia’s history of human rights abuses - particularly relating to Russian state treatment of the LGBTQI+ community. While it is natural for states to want to present their best side to the international community and media, the case is different with large state players who have distinct objectives of presentation in mind. It will be interesting to see whether the international media echo Mr. Putin’s projection of Russia, or whether focus will be centered on external notions of the Russian state and the domestic realities of Russian people.
    An article I read in researching this topic concluded with ‘Let the Games Begin!’ In retrospect, it is unclear whether this denotes the game of football or a global tournament of media and political responses.

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  6. Nikoloz Tokhvadze 2 months ago

    It seems to have become a tradition by now: award the major sport event to an illiberal, even autocratic regime and in the aftermath contemplate about the ramifications. The functioning democracies, where public opinion is increasingly against the grandeurs of the state-subsidized pomp and show, are reluctant to invest there - where the autocracies shine: exposure and legitimization of the frowned upon regimes. Hence, current predicament is not only an outcome of an arbitrary decision of some 'commission', but also a logical result of the international system.
    Just like Sochi Olympics, this even too will be politically charged. Those against, will push the narrative of an autocratic Russia annexing/occupying territories of neighbors, interfering in domestic affairs of democratic superpowers and violating the human rights (especially of minorities). On the other hand, that handful in favor of Putin's rule (predominantly concentrated in Russia, of course) will see an opportunity to prove the world how functional and welcoming the Russian state is. One is clear, event of such magnitude is impossible to ignore.
    Leaders of the world will face a dilemma too. While most will initially either ignore or send the middle ranked envoys, depending on the composition of the later few games, many leaders will be tempted to piggyback the success of their national teams and be photographed in the locker rooms and the field. Eventually, personal gain will prevail over the normative sentiments.

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  7. Julia Glathe 2 months ago

    Football and politics are inextricably linked and each attempt to claim that football should be separated from politics is nothing than a rhetorical instrument to discredit certain types of politicization. Undoubtedly, the Russian government will try to take advantage of hosting the World Cup and stabilize the authoritarian regime. Within the domestic political discourse, Putin will stage oneself as effective manager and as leader of a country that is able to organize international mega events as good as any Western country. At the international level, the World Cup brings some recognition to a country that many would describe as aggressive military force. The call to boycott the World Cup is therefore a legitimate and important position that sharply reminds us on the political context that does not stop at the football arena but shapes und uses it. The problem with this action is that in some way it implies that, apart from Russia, football is a clean, transparent and democratically structured business. Moreover, a boycott would be ineffective from a politically strategic view: the Kremlin and state-controlled media will make use of it presenting it as proof of the “russophobic insanity” of the West. Thus, the Kremlin will once again succeed in reinterpreting its own authoritarian rule as a liberation struggle against Western dominance.

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1 Comment

  1. Rana zarei 2 months ago

    I think we can look at this global event in 2 perspectives :
    First in external aspect Russia could repair it's reputation that was dented after involvement in Ukraine crisis and Syria war.
    And on the other, holding matches in different cities showed a tendency to decentralization that also could lead to more national unity that Russia needs more than ever.
    Sports have always been one of the best tools for politicians to show their global power .
    Among them, soccer will be helpfull for the economy of the host country as one of the world's most popular sports that attracts millions of tourists to the host nation.
    Also managing such a big event like that in safety and with out making mistakes shows a great ability to manage a country and being impressive as a power in world
    So it is a big chance for host countries to stabilize their power and sovereignty and, in fact, a tool to cover unpleasant political events and actions
    and I think that Putin had an achievement in this case

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