The World Cup’s big match: politics v sport

Mother Russia: The 2018 World Cup poster analysed for hidden messages.

Is it true that politics and sport don’t mix? The world’s biggest ever sporting event will launch on Thursday to bitter accusations against Russia, the next host, Qatar, and the organisers, Fifa.

On two points the pundits are united: the 2018 World Cup will be the planet’s biggest sporting event ever and, of all the World Cups in history, it will be the most political.

On just about everything else they are passionately at odds.

Will Thomas Mueller surpass compatriot Miroslav Klose as the highest goalscorer? Will Lionel Messi become the first two-time winner of the Golden Ball? Does England stand a chance? Nobody knows. Everyone has a view.

When the opening ceremony begins at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, at 2pm (BST) this Thursday it will launch a month during which half the world’s 7.6 billion population is expected to watch, and every one of the 5,760 (or more) minutes of football will attract tens of millions of fans.

And yet at the same time, the drumbeat of condemnation and anger directed at Fifa, the tournament’s organisers, will grow steadily more deafening.

The moral fury was summed up best this weekend by the award-winning journalist and author Nick Cohen, who wrote: “When Fifa announced it was handing the World Cup first to kleptomaniac murderers who run Russia and then to the overseers of a serf economy in Qatar, even cynics thought Zurich’s masters of corruption had finally gone too far. Surely the world wouldn’t stand for it.”

“The looting of the Russian economy, the downing of civilian airliners, the murder of journalists, the sheer brazenness of Fifa’s decision to stage a World Cup in a country that has invaded and occupied another country are powerful arguments to boycott the circus,” he continued, before admitting that this would not make a ha’penny’s worth of difference to the average football addict glued to the TV screen.

The dilemma is summed up by the example of England left-back Danny Rose who asked his family not to go to his World Cup matches in Russia for fear of racist attacks. But, he says: “Somehow Russia got the World Cup and we have to get on with it. Whatever we do here isn’t going to change what is happening around the world.”

So should we feel morally compromised by watching the World Cup this year?

Guilty pleasure

Yes we should, say some. We would probably feel a bit strange watching Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics, and this World Cup really is not all that different. By watching it we enable a dictator to boost his prestige, give legitimacy to corruption, and normalise racism and homophobia. Boycott it.

Just forget about politics for a while, implore millions of others. Anything we do, from wearing a pair of jeans to eating a hamburger, potentially has sinister undertones. The great thing about sport is that it is a distraction. Enjoy it, watch as much as you can — and don’t feel bad.

You Decide

  1. Should you feel guilty about watching the World Cup?
  2. Is it generally a good thing or a bad thing when sport and politics collide?


  1. List five reasons why you think the World Cup is so popular. Compare your choices with those of your classmates.
  2. Research one reason why people are worried about the World Cup being hosted in Russia. Write 500 words on the extent to which you think the concern is justified.

Some People Say...

“Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.”

Michael Jordan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The opening ceremony of the 2018 World Cup takes place in just three days’ time. The first match sees the hosts, Russia, face Saudi Arabia. Russia was awarded the World Cup in 2010, when its international standing was a lot higher than it is now. But after the wars in Ukraine and Syria, the doping scandal at the Winter Olympics, and a succession of authoritarian domestic policies, many believe Russia should not host the tournament.
What do we not know?
Whether any of these concerns will melt away once the action gets going. For example, after trouble at the 2016 European Championships, a lot of attention turned to Russia’s notorious football hooligans. However, it is believed that the Russian police have been clamping down hard on the troublemakers ahead of the tournament.

Word Watch

Or more
In the knockout rounds, some games could go to extra time and therefore last an extra 30 minutes.
The international football governing body. Fifa was formed in 1904 and is based in Zurich, Switzerland.
Nick Cohen
Writing for The Guardian. You can read his whole piece via the link under Become An Expert.
The 2022 hosts, Qatar, could be even more controversial. There is widespread proof that the Qatar bid bribed Fifa officials to vote for them to host the tournament, and there have been concerns about the rights of women and gay people in the country, as well as the treatment of migrant workers, many of whom have died building the stadiums.
Danny Rose
The Tottenham Hotspur left-back recently gave an interview in which he revealed that he has been suffering from depression this season.
Racist attacks
Most groups of Russian football hooligans hold far-right and often explicitly Neo-Nazi views.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.