How the World Cup reflects – and subverts – the world we live in

Encouragingly, political leaders’ attempts to leverage the tournament for personal gain tend to end in failure

Sport and politics shouldn't mix, goes the earnest cliché. Except they do – all the time. And that's partly what makes some sports so interesting. The World Cup without the politics would be like Roland Garros without tennis balls or the Monaco Grand Prix without steering wheels: familiar-looking but lacking in some essential way.

Of course Vladimir Putin is trying to use the World Cup to improve his own standing and project a certain idea of Russia to his own compatriots and to the world. Any leader would do the same, but a head of state whose authoritarian regime has been so badly hit by international opprobrium – and accompanying economic sanctions – was hardly going to spurn the gift that the biggest show in the world represents. Putin came of age in a political tradition that saw sport (or "physical culture", as the Party called it) as intimately bound up with ideology, national self-image and the inculcation of Soviet values. Anyone who was paying attention to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a €50 billion white-elephantine extravaganza whose opening ceremony was a noticeably selective take on modern Russian history – a history that apparently ended with Yuri Gagarin's 1961 space mission before resuming in the present day – would know that Putin is more than alive to the symbolic value of these showpiece events.

In that, he would hardly be alone. Dilma Rousseff, Jacob Zuma and Angela Merkel, to name only the three most recent hosts, all basked enthusiastically in the World Cup's reflected glory. The last authoritarian regime to host the competition – the Argentine junta in 1978 – attempted to use it to showcase and legitimise its brutal rule.

Corruption and cronyism

Unlike, say, democracy or communism or the market economy, football is close to a universal phenomenon. Not surprisingly, then, the World Cup is a mirror that reflects the world back at itself. The organisation that runs it, Fifa, is almost a synonym for corruption and cronyism. Inequality is rife: elite players can earn €500,000 a week while the weakest leagues struggle to pay for goalposts. When Putin and Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman met before their country's match in Moscow on Thursday, the first item on the agenda was said to be not the football but a lucrative oil deal. Before the tournament began, Nike announced it could not supply boots for the Iranian players because it would be in breach of US sanctions against Tehran.


England's national football culture – just like the Brexiteer majority in the country at large – is inward-looking and fixated on former glorie

England may have the most globalised league in the world, just as its capital city is one of the great multicultural melting pots, but its national football culture – just like the Brexiteer majority in the country at large – is inward-looking and fixated on former glories. France owes much of its success to the immigrant communities whose integration on the field has been so conspicuously lacking in the society itself. The bulk of the Moroccan team was born in Europe, reflecting the wider brain drain from the global south to the north.

Failed to qualify

Yet part of the World Cup's beauty is its ability to subvert the global order and, if for only four glorious weeks, allow us to imagine a world turned on its head. So while many of the world's economic superpowers have made it to Russia, several, including the United States, China and India all failed to qualify – proof that size or national wealth are no guarantee of success on the field. Iceland (population: 300,000) are there, as are Uruguay (the winner in 1930), Costa Rica and Senegal. Northern European powerhouses may scorn the profligate southern laggards, but while Spain, Portugal and Greece have all won major tournaments in recent years, fiscally prudent Holland, Sweden and Finland have been struggling for consistency and form.

Torture and murder

More encouraging still, political leaders' attempts to leverage the tournament for personal gain tend to end in failure. The military junta in Argentina may have seen the 1978 World Cup as a great PR opportunity, but for the duration of the competition the international press carried stories of torture and murder at the hands of the regime. François Hollande suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of French voters a year after France hosted the 2016 European Championships. The ANC got no bounce in the polls after the 2010 World Cup, and while Rousseff was re-elected as president of Brazil a few months after the 2014 tournament, two years later she was impeached.

Indeed, after Sochi, Putin’s hopes cannot be that high. Today, those winter Olympics are remembered not for good facilities, new roads or seamless organisation but for doping, cost overruns, shoddy building and disregard for ordinary citizens. There may be no justice on the field, as fans will tediously repeat for the next four weeks, but maybe, in politics if not in sport, people eventually get what they deserve.