World Cup 2018: Football, politics and propaganda


Whether devout football fans or opportunists profiting from the mass exposure the World Cup provides, leaders of countries participating in the tournament are using football as a means of communication, and even propaganda.


The World Cup in Russia has been under way for over a week now, and despite some of the games not living up to the event's expectations, politics have dominated the pitch. Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Senegalese and French counterparts, Macky Sall and Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and even the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and his regional arch-rival, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have all shown interest, albeit to varying degrees, in this year's World Cup.

Whether they are truly passionate about football or trying to capitalise on the event's unparalleled exposure, heads of state made sure to show pictures of themselves with their national team and even to attend games in person. But whether they have reaped the political benefits of these PR stunts remains to be seen.

A global forum for Putin

Even before kickoff, there were heated debates that Putin would politically exploit the event.

"Putin will face an uphill battle trying to restore his reputation among Westerners and the World Cup won’t help change or impact the ideas that are already formed about him,” Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations and author of ‘The Football Empire’, told FRANCE 24. “At the domestic level, football will do little in terms of the president’s popularity, especially since he already got re-elected,” he added.

Putin attended the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia (5-0) where he broke with tradition to make a speech before kickoff and praise his country's values.

He did not, however, attend Russia’s second match versus Egypt.

The Russians feared national humiliation at the tournament, reminiscent of the team’s performance during the preparation matches. However, to the Kremlin's delight, the “sbornaya” exceeded expectations by delivering strong results. The Russian government is known for using sport to promote policy. Even Putin resorts to such techniques, sometimes appearing in Judo or hockey matches.

"Besides the Russian national team's results, winning the bid to organise the World Cup is considered a victory for the Kremlin. It builds the country's soft power and that of its president,” Boniface said. “But this does not only apply to authoritarian regimes. For instance, French leaders will be able to reap the political benefits of winning the bid to host the Olympic games in 2024.”

Former French president Jacques Chirac also benefited from the mass exposure that the 1998 World Cup provided. France was the host nation and proceeded to win its first ever World Cup.

"Host nations are usually tempted to use these events for communication or propaganda to present their country in the best possible light. If leaders manage to boost their popularity in the process, it becomes a win-win situation", said Bruno Daroux, FRANCE 24's international affairs expert.

Politicians took to social media to express support for their national teams. Japan's Shinzo Abe posted a video on Twitter where he wore the dark blue jersey of the national team, before Japan played Colombia in its opening game.

Japan won the match with Japanese princess Takamado watching from the stands, the first time in over 100 years that a Japanese imperial member has visited Russia. This is further proof that football serves diplomacy, since the two countries haven't signed a peace treaty since the end of the Second World War, and relations are strained due to territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands.

The Mexican,Senegalese presidents pull out the big guns

The Mexican and Senegalese presidents resorted to more elaborate methods by posting video clips on their Twitter accounts. The clips featured the national team and its supporters, while encouraging speeches they prepared played in the background.

Mexico's Enrique Peña Nieto and Senegal's Macky Sall tweeted in celebration when the Mexican side beat Germany and Senegal beat Poland.

Other leaders such as Spanish King Felipe VI or Merkel were content with well-publicised visits to the players before their departure to Russia. Merkel, whose “Mannschaft” won the 2014 edition of the World Cup, had previously basked in the glory that comes with winning the world's most prestigious football tournament.

Macron, a big fan of French club Olympique Marseille, visited Clairefontaine, where the French team was holding its preparations to wish the players good luck before kick-off. Macron also said he would travel to Russia to attend the French team's matches if they make it to the semi-finals.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May issued a message of support ahead of her country’s opening game.

Iran’s Ali Khamenei used Twitter to congratulate the Iranian team for its level of play, despite its defeat against Spain (0-1).

In a bid to dispel rumours about his lack of appearance, Saudi's Mohammed Bin Salman chose to attend his side’s opening match against Russia. However, the Crown Prince was in for a bitter evening, witnessing both the humiliation of the Saudi team (0-5) and having to put up with the Russian president's self-satisfied expression after every goal.

However none of these leaders could compete with the world champion of self-promotion: Ramzan Kadyrov. Although not directly concerned with the World Cup, the Chechnya leader seized the moment for propaganda purposes. Kadyrov, who has been accused of a string of human rights abuses, engineered a joint appearance with Liverpool and Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah in the Chechen capital Grozny, where the Egyptian side was conducting its World Cup training camp.

This article has been translated from the original in French

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