Football meets politics at Russia’s World Cup

Pioneers: Russia is the first Eastern European country ever to host the World Cup. © Getty

Could the World Cup bring Russia back in from the cold? The tournament starts in just over two weeks’ time. Some expect a turning point for relations with the West; others are more sceptical…

In two weeks’ time on Thursday, Moscow will be the centre of the world as Russia take on Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the 2018 Fifa World Cup.

While the boycotted Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles at the height of the Cold War may be close, this World Cup could end up being the most politically charged sporting contest of all time.

It is frequently said that “all eyes are on the hosts” in the build-up to a tournament. This year, that will certainly be true.

Just over nine years ago, Vladimir Putin — not a football fan himself — gave the order that Russia should bid to host the World Cup in 2018. Back then, Russia’s relations with the West had never been so good.

Memories of the Cold War were fading. The rouble was strong. Moscow, once a byword for grey, grim austerity, had been transformed into a glittering, modern megacity bursting with billionaires. The West knew Vladimir Putin was no liberal, but he was bringing stability and wealth. It was a start.

As Simon Kuper wrote in The Financial Times, “Putin must have imagined the World Cup as his version of China’s 2008 Beijing Olympics: a coming-out party for a well-off, confident, modern power.”

How times have changed. After wars in Ukraine and Syria, Russia and the West are at loggerheads once more. The rouble has collapsed following economic sanctions. Russia’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics was marred by a state-sponsored doping scandal of epic proportions.

Recently there have been allegations of meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and Britain’s Brexit referendum. The Russian state stands accused of poisoning former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury earlier this year, leading to calls for England to boycott the tournament.

There are also fears that hooliganism at the World Cup will further tarnish the country’s reputation.

But despite all this, millions of fans will travel to the world’s biggest country to cheer their team on.

Could this sporting and cultural jamboree bring Russia in from the cold?

The great thaw?

Yes it can, say some. Look at the displays of diplomacy between North and South Korea during the recent Winter Olympics. Now we appear closer than ever before to an end to that conflict. In Russia it will work both ways: the fans and dignitaries travelling there for the World Cup will also begin to understand and appreciate this great country.

Do not be sucked in by this propaganda exercise, reply others. Russia is hosting the World Cup for cynical reasons: to display a façade of strength, wealth and beauty, all the while menacing the rest of the world. It will take much more than a sporting tournament to repair relations with Russia.

You Decide

  1. Will the World Cup change the world’s opinion of Russia?
  2. Should Russia be hosting the World Cup?


  1. Design a poster encouraging people to visit Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
  2. Make a timeline of relations between Russia and the West following the fall of the Soviet Union. How much have things changed?

Some People Say...

“Politics should not interfere with sports. And sports should impact politics.”

Vladimir Putin

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The World Cup starts in Russia on 14 June as the hosts face Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. We know that when Russia was awarded the World Cup in 2010, relations between the country and the outside world were at a relative high point. However, years of conflicts, doping scandals and supposed election meddling have led to Russia becoming a pariah state.
What do we not know?
Whether the World Cup will change how the rest of the world sees Russia, how Russia sees the rest of the world, or whether all the old stereotypes will be reinforced. We also do not know to what extent the hooliganism that dogs Russian football will become a major issue at this World Cup.

Word Watch

Boycotted Olympics
The US boycotted the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 while the Soviet Union boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984.
In late 2010 one dollar was worth around 28 roubles. Now one dollar is worth 62 roubles.
Despite economic problems, Russia still has the fifth highest number of billionaires of any country in the world, after the US, China, India and Germany.
State-sponsored doping scandal
As a result of the scandal, Russia was banned from competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics. However, numerous Russians took part as “Olympic athletes from Russia”. When they won medals, the Olympic anthem, rather than the Russian one, was played.
When England played Russia at the 2016 European Championships in Marseille, mass disorder broke out in the city as gangs of trained Russian thugs scoured the city looking for English fans to fight with.
Closer than ever
This has been thrown into some doubt after Donald Trump cancelled his upcoming peace summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.


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