The off-field success story for Russia

  • Beyond the World Cup

The FIFA World Cup that would conclude in Russia this week has been a major success story outside the football field as well. While this is true for the country itself, it is perhaps even more so for its demagogic leader Vladimir Putin.

The project started with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi – one of the cities hosting the FIFA World Cup as well – wherein the hosts spent more money than the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. But while that was a mega event in itself, it’s the football world cup – the most followed sporting event globally – that has brought two-pronged success for Putin and his vision for his country: it has brought the world to Russia, while taking Russia to the world.

Not only has this been a supreme PR exercise for a country largely maligned owing to the Cold War – and the post-Cold War – animosities that the west has historically espoused against it, the FIFA World Cup has especially been a triumph for Putin’s hegemony over the country he rules.

The event has sent out a message to Putin’s critics in the country – of which there are scores – and those looking for outlets of dissent against him, that as his steely grip on the country incorporates more iron, what it also is bringing about a boost in reputation which would inevitably merge Russia with the world, a large chunk of which it has shared traditional animosity with.

Recently, the Chairman of the Russia-2018 Local Organising Committee (LOC), Arkady Dvorkovich reiterated that hosting the FIFA World Cup has helped improve Russia’s global image.

Russian officials can gladly pat themselves on their backs and say they took it, as five million came rolling into the cities hosting World Cup matches and most left happy

“We have demonstrated our openness and hospitality to the entire world,” the official stated. “And it was not done just for the world tournament. We are like this for real. We have changed Russia’s image in the eyes of the world. And it is very important.”

Important, it surely is. As recently as in August 2017, Pew reported that Russia, as well as president Putin, garnered negative views globally. The research suggested that a global median of just 34pc had a “favourable view of Russia”, while a meagre 26pc had “confidence in Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs”. Only 30pc of people believed that the Russian government “respects the personal freedoms of its people” — a median that fell to 14pc both in Europe and the United States of America.

Notions about Russia have certainly changed over the past month, with writers finding out that traveling to Russia wasn’t all that different from traveling to any other non-English speaking part of the world, and that all of the Internet devices they took as a precaution were superfluous.

Muslim Arabs, on the other hand, found themselves welcome in Islam-centric, Arabic speaking Grozny, the capital of Chechnya where locals were happy to host (and practice their Arabic upon) fellow Muslims, as well as hand out favours one wouldn’t hand out a random stranger.

Others still discovered the side of Russia not shown in the news as vodka, pine nuts, card games, and, above all, love for football became the unifying factor for people gathering from all over the world.

Perhaps, the World Cup gave Russia and Russians to show the world a more “human” side of themselves, far from the picture drawn by daily grim headlines and years of Cold War propaganda produced by western literature and film.

It was a golden opportunity, and while they may not have managed to appease one and all, with some unfortunate incidents inevitable during events of such a large scale, Russian officials can gladly pat themselves on their backs and say they took it, as five million came rolling into the cities hosting World Cup matches and most left happy.

For Dvorkovich, the benefits don’t end at a positive global image, either. In his statement, he further noted what the Russian football machinery would take away from hosting the mega event: “As for the championship’s legacy I would like to point to three aspects. First, it is infrastructure. It is very important, especially for children’s football. About 70 new training grounds across the entire European Russia will be used to coach children. Second, it is our organisational skills — volunteers, security,” he said, “And last but not least, we have demonstrated our openness and hospitality to the entire world.”

Even so, the enhancing reputation notwithstanding, for Russia to truly merge itself with the west – even if all the while maintaining the traditional rivalry – it would have to work on its human rights plight and adapt certain moral values that it currently rejects.

Even though that is beyond the scope of this piece, which focuses on the PR wins, it goes without saying that for Putin to establish himself as a global leader that he envisions himself as, his Russia’s pluralism would have to be as inward looking as it has been in accommodating the world over the past four weeks.