The World Cup Is Russia’s Latest Makeover Attempt

But there are limits to how much soccer can burnish its image.

Anton Vaganov / Reuters

The soccer World Cup, which began Thursday in Russia, could be perceived as a celebration of the world’s love for the beautiful game. It could also, as Boris Johnson, the U.K. foreign secretary, put it, seem like an “emetic prospect, frankly, to think of Putin glorying in this sporting event.” Indeed, the sporting aspect of the Cup notwithstanding, the tournament is yet another attempt by Russia to win respect, and perhaps rehabilitate its image, through sports.

That’s a strategy dating back to the Soviet era when sporting dominance—albeit built on the back of a state-run doping program—went hand-in-hand with great-power status. The dark days of the Yeltsin years saw Russia lose both. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, was keen, however, to showcase modern Russia, both through his foreign policy and through sports. His quest got a boost in 2007 when Russia won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Those games would be the first Olympics to be held in a former Soviet state since the 1980 Moscow games, which much of the Western world boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Just as the Cold War era seems a world away, so too was it different in 2007, when Russia won its Olympic bid. The global financial crisis was still a year away; the euro crisis, Brexit, and a prospect of a weakened trans-Atlantic alliance unthinkable; and Putin’s Russia was vaunted as a good place to do business. The Games were supposed to be a way to wipe away the image of the weak, lawless Russia of the Yeltsin years, to show the world that Russia was back—and was a reliable partner to the West. And for the most part, they did.

Ahead of the games, there were the usual embarrassing stories about Russian corruption in the run-up to Sochi, of organizers being behind schedule, of possible security concerns, of Russia’s abysmal human-rights record and its treatment of the LGBT community, but the games themselves proceeded mostly smoothly. Russia, it seemed, got much of the image rehab it wanted.

But if there is one thing Russia craves more than the world’s respect, it is preserving what it regards as its sphere of influence. In the months and years that followed Sochi, Russia attacked Georgia (in 2008), where it supported pro-Moscow separatist rebels, and cut off gas supplies to Ukraine (in 2010). International condemnation followed, along with, seemingly inexplicably, the awarding to Russia of the 2018 World Cup in 2010. The mascot for the tournament, Zabivaka, the “charming wolf,” is proof that if nothing else, the Russians have a sense of humor.

Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the bid awarded to Russia—and to Qatar as World Cup host in 2022. London, the city that was widely expected to win the right to host in 2018, received only two votes. Allegations of corruption at FIFA, soccer’s governing body, whose reputation for corruption is perhaps matched only by the International Olympic Committee, began almost immediately. A FIFA summary of an internal investigation, dismissed by the man who carried out the inquiry as a whitewash, absolved both countries of corruption in their bids.

In the intervening years, Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea, entered the Syrian Civil War on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, and was accused by Dutch authorities of shooting down a Malaysian jetliner and by U.K. officials of poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter with a nerve agent. Nor had it resolved the old complaints about its human-rights record, its discrimination against the LGBT community, and racism in Russian football. There were repeated calls for the tournament to be moved from Russia.

In the face of all this, whatever goodwill Russia got from Sochi was already evaporating by the time it turned out to have been a mirage to begin with. Last year came the revelations from the World Anti-Doping Agency of a massive state-directed program of doping for Russian Olympic athletes. Russia, which led the medal count in those games, saw more than a third of its medals stripped following the report, and its Olympic team banned from 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. Putin called the disclosures part of an “anti-Russia policy” by the West. That report also alleged widespread doping in Russia’s soccer program, but a subsequent FIFA investigation said there was “insufficient evidence” of wrongdoing.

But much of that was seemingly forgotten Thursday as the Russian side defeated Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game of the tournament. Indeed, Russia may no longer need sports to flex its muscles. It has continued to push its foreign-policy priorities even as the forces that were formerly aligned to contain it are fracturing. Europe’s united front against the invasion of Crimea is crumbling. New leaders in Italy and Austria, and old ones in Hungary, all favor closer relations with Russia. So does President Trump, who, according to BuzzFeed News, told other members of the Group of Seven that the Ukrainian region was Russian because everyone who lives there speaks Russian. He also said he wanted Russia back in the group, formerly the Group of Eight, after it was banned due to its actions in Ukraine.

To put it in soccer terms, Putin has shown that the best defense for him is a good offense. He has kept possession of the ball in his opponents’ half, dictated the course of play, and waited for them to make a mistake. They haven’t disappointed him.