To keep sports out of politics is a very sound idea, but it is definitely not possible during the World Cup. As the tournament is heading toward its end in Russia, it has proven once again that the sports competitions are inseparable from the country branding, national identity and world politics. Globalization has made obsolete the assumption about sports as a politically neutral activity. Nowadays, the World Cup is the event where the national becomes personal and personal becomes international.
The politics has become a common thread in the World Championship hosted by Russia in a number of ways. It encompasses symbolic acts of politicians supporting national teams, the demonstration of popular views on national and international conflicts, and a change in Russian national identity.
In general, the effects of the World Cup are controversial. Such a big sports event may have as positive as well as negative impact on national identity and domestic politics. Trying to achieve the world media coverage, the governments may instead face the world-wide critic. Corruption scandals and the discussion of social inequalities go hand in hand with the Word Cup. For instance, in 2010 South Africa had to cope with social protests. Brazil faced the same problem in 2014. Previously, even Germany could not avoid the fate of criticism that expressed concerns about human trafficking and FIFA corruption.
Another effect is the impact on nation’s self-perception. For countries where the football is elevated to a national symbol, the outcomes of the game may feel particularly painful. Italy is trying to overcome its nation-wide psychological trauma over the failure to qualify for the games. Brazil, Argentina, and Germany are following the pattern. On the contrary, for Colombia, a country with profound social and political divisions, the football is one of a few things that can unite the nation.
As for the World Cup in Russia, it is no exception to the rule in aforementioned respects. On the whole, the negative Western media coverage of Russia was no surprise. There was an outcry for unnecessary governmental spending on world-class stadiums in remote places in the country where football was not popular. The pictures of the frightening Russian Ultras were widely dissimilated in order to prevent the English public from attending the event. Additionally, the human rights and all kind of discrimination in Russia were under scrutiny long before the World Cup inauguration. Even when it turned out that the Russians are not innately evil, Russian people continue to be labeled as the “real losers” of Mundial.
So, is it all worth it? In case of Russia, it definitely is. When the host county’s reputation is tarnished, there is still the chance that sports will serve a unifying force for a nation. Because of rather modest achievements in football, Russian team was not among the favorites and its participation in the quarterfinals took both the country and the world by surprise. That is why the impact of its victories was so powerful. Last time the Soviet team went to the quarterfinals 32 years ago. Even though, it did not make it further in the tournament again, the Russian team is writing a new page in sports of independent Russia and, definitely, a new page of Russian national identity.
Opening the World Cup with the score 5:0 against Saudi Arabia, the matches of Russian team soon started to be perceived as a war battle. At the stadiums and in the streets the fans were singing not only the national anthem, but the songs from the time of the Great Patriotic war (1941-1945) against Nazi Germany. The Great Patriotic war occupies by far the most important place in the Russian collective memory. Thus, it is not surprising that the song “Katiusha”, one of the most popular songs of the war time, has already become a part of the Russian football culture.
National identity has many representations, but its emotional facet is rarely captured and studied. During the sports event such as the World Cup we can observe the emotional bond with a nation in its maximum expression. In case of Russia, these feelings had an unexpected positive effect: the decent result showed in the quarterfinals made the Russians feel proud of a nation that can stand face to face with the world best teams on equal grounds. It is also helping to overcome the low self-esteem that the Russians inherited from break-up of Soviet Union and “the wild 90’”.
There are other effects that will prove beneficial in the long run. Hosting an important international even of this scale re-opened Russia for foreigners and for the Russians themselves.
First, travelling abroad is not common among the majority of Russians. Different sources report that 72 to 80 per cent of Russian citizens do not possess passports for international travel. Thus, for many the acquaintance with a foreign environment has been mediated by the media and Western pop-culture. Meeting foreign football fans during the Word Cup was a unique intercultural encounter for the Russian population.
Second, the image of the Soviet past is still haunting the new Russian state both nationally and internationally. The blend of the Cold War stereotypes reinforced by the Hollywood movies, reciprocally imposed visa regimes, and the gap in income created a vicious circle of contact avoidance between the common people of Russia and the West. Thus, the World Cup was almost a unique opportunity for both sides to meet each other.
The international politics and sports create an intriguing blend. As teams have been eliminated, the fans had to find new favorites to support. When it happens, the political loyalty is what guides people’s choice. For instance, Argentinians resented to support England because of Falkland Islands (Malvinas) war in 1982.
As the tournament goes on, the politically-charged scenes continue to unfold reopening old sores of national and international conflicts. FIFA had to interfere into Albanian-Swiss players’ goal celebrations. Then, Serbs publicly reiterated their rejection of Kosovo independence at the heart of fans’ meeting point. Croatian president ignored the protocol, appearing in the lower tribune wearing a national T-shirt. To add insult to injury, after defeating Russia in quarterfinals, Croat players used a controversial Ukrainian nationalist salute that is commonly associated with the Ukrainian Nazi at the time of the World War II and contemporary ultra-right parties. Even NATO did not stay immune to the political life beauties of the World Cup and openly declared its pride of having all the remaining in semi-final teams in its rows.
Thus, the world politics, nationalism and sports are within touching distance at the World Cup. Although it has not ended yet, it has already left an imprint on the Russian society and the rest of the world. Do you still want sports without politics? Sorry, not in this century.