Bread and Circuses – The Football World Cup

From the 14th June (tomorrow at the time of this writing) the world will witness its 21st World Cup tournament, this time hosted in Russia. Football is an odd game to have conquered the worlds hearts. A sport popularised by the sons of aristocrats running around the wet and cold fields of England’s leading 19th century public schools, is now actively played by over 270mn FIFA registered players globally while the World Cup is the World’s most watched event, with 3.5bn people reached in the 2014 tournament.

But while the talents of the worlds leading male football players will fill the papers for the next few weeks, it is also worth taking some time to consider the impact that the World Cup has on national politics.

The World Cup can exert a powerful affect on national moods, not only on the host nations but also on those who participate. In 2006 as Germany hosted the World Cup, the nation witnessed the first large scale public displays of German flags and German nationalism, or as one German friend remarked to me “It was the first time in my life I felt it was ok to be proud of being German”. By contrast spare a thought for Brazil, who after financing the World Cup and the Olympics, crashed out of the World Cup against Germany in a 7-1 in what the BBC called one of the “Great World Cup moments”. Not only did the tournament torpedo the reputation of Brazil, it also destroyed the popularity of the national government, and when the full details of the lavo jato or “Operation car wash” scandal first started to appear in 2014, it was a matter of time before the acting President Dilma Rouseff was impeached and the Workers Party (PD) removed from party. Incidentally, Argentina’s subsequent loss to Germany in the final also helped sour Argentine national mood and along with Brail the country removed President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2015.

So, what is there to consider at this World Cup? Well firstly its hosts are not exactly in the international good books. Following large-scale arrests and investigations, it is widely believed that the Russian hosts bribed their way into securing the World Cup tournament this year.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the country remains under heavy international sanctions for its illegal annexation of Crimea, alongside its involvement in the deaths of Dutch nationals in Ukraine and its complicity in Assad’s war crimes in Syria. Given this backdrop, President Putin sees an opportunity to distract the world (and his citizens) with well-executed games. If Russia performs well, the visitors are happy and the matches are exciting, the country will be given a strong platform to re-engage with Europe on sanctions whilst also undermining domestic political opposition. However, a loss in the group stage, followed by further corruption details and stories about Russian football hooligans would further undermine both domestic and international support for Russia.

But Russia is not the only country looking to the World Cup for a reputation boost. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia would benefit from stronger than expected performances, and while the chances of any Middle Eastern Team winning the cup are reasonably low, an advance to the semi or quarter finals would still provide a large positive PR boost to these middle eastern nations.

While for some the World Cup is a chance to build a positive PR platform, for others it is a welcome distraction from challenging political issues at home. A strong Spanish performance may help to deflect attention from Catalonian politics and the current governments relative weaknesses, while Angela Merkel would also gain from a strong German performance to distract from political in-fighting between the CDU and CSU over immigration policy designed to see off the rise of the AfD. In England, a strong performance would surprise the nation and provided a much-needed distraction to Theresa May during a torid period of Brexit discussions. Given the negative publicity surrounding Poland’s current government and its policies on refugees, judicial reform, coal power plants and running battles with the EU Commission, a strong performance from the country would further boost nationalist sentiment and distract from the countries wider challenges. Lastly in France, the Macron factor could receive a badly need boost, following the weak responses from Germany to France’s new EU reform.

Then of course there is Latin America, the only other rival to Europe is its wide spread fanaticism to the sport and its quality of national teams across the continent. Brazil hungrily eye revenge in this World Cup, and a strong performance (especially a win) could be an immensely powerful psychological boost to a country suffering from a prolonged period of economic malaise. By contrast, Colombia sees the World Cup as a chance to build on its strong performance in 2014 and as a way for the country to continue showing off its transition from a near failed state in 2000, to a vibrant and dynamic society, recently approved to join the OECD and eager to encourage tourism and investment.

Across all of these countries and the host of others I haven’t mentioned, the biggest immediate impact of the World Cup is domestic retail spending. When Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup, Bloomberg estimated the cost at 1 billion euros. As each country advances, or crashes out, the countries bars, restaurants, shops and treasury departments will feel the impact. While this may only be small, a good-will spending mood going into the summer can be a powerful driver of economic momentum.

Lastly spare a thought for young Iceland. As a country of under 400,000 people it has the ability to truly upset the footballing world. Not only would a series of Icelandic victories likely lead to a record number of google searches for “where is Iceland” but more importantly it would drive home the question that many sports fans, players, investors and commentators have long asked: “Is football about money, or about the passion of the team and how they work together?”…….well maybe I am stretching a bit here, as the more likely question will probably be “how the hell did they win when we cant even qualify”? Nonetheless, the symbolism of an underdog succeeding is a powerful image in sport and a powerful tool for domestic identity building.

So while you enjoy the games during this World Cup, spare a thought for what the win or loss may mean for those competing. The consequences may be bigger than you realise.

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