Sports as soft power politics and media entertainment

Kristian Gerner
Dept. of History, Lund University

Richard Arnold (ed.)
Russia and the 2018 FIFA World Cup
212 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2021 (Critical Research in Football)
ISBN 978-0-367-37205-7

This anthology on Russia and the 2018 World Cup starts with a gross misrepresentation of Russia. The sub-title of the introduction reads “A sporting riddle wrapped in mystery.” Richard Arnold argues that Russia in the year 2018 remained “Winston Churchill’s ‘riddle wrapped in in a mystery inside an enigma’.” But Churchill did not declare that there was anything enigmatic about Russia. After the introductory rhetorical phrase in his speech on October 1st, 1939, he added: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Britain stood alone in the war against Germany and Churchill would assure his people that in spite of the Soviet-Nazi pact in 1939 that had triggered the war, in due time the Soviet Union would end up as a British ally against Germany. Churchill was right, as we know.

Despite the perspective that is suggested by the misquote, the contributors to the volume have got it right. The issue is the Russian national interest as the leaders understood it in 2018. In their different chapters, the authors deconstruct the trope of the “Russian national interest” at the time of the World Cup. The background was that the image of Russia had been tarnished by the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and the revelations in early 2018 about the massive state sponsored doping of Russian athletes in the Sochi Winter Olympics.

The research object is twofold. One dimension is the narration of what happened in Russian society during 2018. Here the highly unpopular pension reform is counterposed to the carnival of the World Cup. The other dimension is the analysis of the World Cup as a species of SME, i.e., Sports Media Entertainment. The main analytical matrix is an ingenious combination of “the presentation of self in everyday life” (Erving Goffman), applied on a state, and “soft power” (Joseph Nye). Several of the chapters in the book show how the Russian leadership was keen to make the country look like a decent place and how they understand “soft power”. In her chapter on “Global soft power and local effects of the World Cup”, Marina Mikhailova notes that Putin and his administration viewed soft power as an instrument to counter negative information about Russia and its foreign policy. Her conclusion is that “the euphoria of the global football celebration” was overshadowed by the negative impact of Russia’s actions in the global arena. The euphoria had similar ephemeral effects in the domestic arena.

The ten chapters range from a description of the rather miserable Russian football scene prior to the 2018 championships to a comparison of the local impact of hosting the World cup in respectively South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014) and Russia. In between there are illuminating tales about the use of football as a political tool by Vladimir Putins’s buddy, the president of the Republic of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov; the happening staged on the pitch by Pussy Riot during the final in the Luzhniki Stadium; and Russian twitter discourse on the World Cup.

The main analytical matrix is an ingenious combination of “the presentation of self in everyday life” (Erving Goffman), applied on a state, and “soft power” (Joseph Nye).

The editor Richard Arnold and thirteen other scholars contribute to the anthology. Two of the authors are affiliated with universities in Russia. Olga Iakimova is an Associate Professor at The Ural Federal University in Yekaterinburg. Tatiana Zonova is Full Professor at the Moscow State University of International Relations. In the book it is misnamed “… Affairs”. The exact naming matters. There is a Department of International Affairs at the Moscow State University. However, the University of International Relations in Moscow (MGIMO) is “under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, which trains future diplomats and specialists in the field of international relations”.

Zonova mentions that from the early 2000s, her institute has paid special attention to sports diplomacy. It trains future leaders in sports diplomacy and international management.

The University of International Relations is part of the governmental structure in Russia. It speaks with the master’s voice. The university in Yekaterinburg is named after Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia in 1991-1999. He was renowned for opening Russia to the West. Vladimir Putin became his opposite number. Yekaterinburg has the reputation of standing up against Moscow.

The other authors are affiliated with universities and research centra in the US, the UK, Germany, Estonia and Turkey. One is a freelance journalist.

The journalist Manuel Veth has a PhD from King’s College. His thesis Selling the People’s Game: Football’s Transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States (2016) is a solid foundation for his detailed analysis of the impact of the World Cup on football in Russia. His article “The state of play in Russian football” reports about the stadia as such and their local significance.

The article by Veth is about football proper. The remaining articles are about the social and political dimensions of the SME. Chapter two by Volkan Ipek and Andrey Makarychev on “security and the spectacle” presents the staging of the World Cup in Russian cities as an exercise for the security forces. They learned to fine-tune the control of people in urban spaces, thereby “diminishing opportunities for collective action”. Chapter three by Michael Cole on “populist tactics” deconstructs the meaning of “populism”. It shows how the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov used the occasion – there was not any match in Grozny, but the Egyptian team lived in Chechnya’s capital – to appear “fun and likeable”. Cole makes a revealing comparison between Kadyrov and “Vladimir Putin’s use of sport to foster a macho ‘strongman’ image.”

Chapter four is an analysis by four scholars of the World Cup in Russian twitter discourse. They examine more than 420 000 tweets in order to pin-point “genuine Russian sentiment on the World Cup”. The authors observe that it is impossible to extrapolate from the political atmosphere in the young, urban and educated twitter community to the population as a whole. However, they compare their findings with data from opinion surveys and conclude that “the findings nurture skepticism about legitimacy gains for the Russian government generated by the World Cup”. The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is reflected in the twitter conversation. Ukrainians are quite at home in this Russian language context. The examination of the twitter threads demonstrates that Russians and Ukrainians constitute a cultural community in spite of the militarized political conflict between the two states.

Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot ran onto the field during the FIFA World Cup final at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, protesting alleged human rights abuses perpetrated by the Russian government against political dissidents. Four members of the band ran almost halfway up the field before they were detained by security guards. (Shaun Botterill / Getty Images)

Chapters five and seven on, respectively, Putin’s sports policy and the role of football in Soviet and Russian feature films give a historical background. The Soviet legacy is well and alive in both instances. Richard Arnold observes that promoting sports may have a soft impact internationally. However, domestically “sports policy can also form an instrument in ‘the soft authoritarian toolkit’.”

The most intriguing and revealing chapters are number six “The case of Pussy Riot’s protest at the World Cup 2018 in Russia: ‘The policeman enters the game’” by Olga Iakimova, and number eight, “Russian soft power as a result of FIFA 2018” by Tatiana Zonova. I have noted the affiliation of both authors above. The chapters present contrary images of Russia.

Tatiana Zonova refers to President Putin’s definition of soft power as “the use of advanced information and communication technologies”. She adds that Putin has emphasized the link between soft power and national security.

‘Soft power’ is a rather vague concept. The point in using the concept is not only that it is a contrast to hard power, to military means of coercion, but also that it has to do with a state’s impact on values and choices of actions in other states, both in terms of effects of conscious active measures and in terms of standing out as an example worth following. This comprehensive understanding of ‘soft power’ is taken for granted in most chapters in the anthology. However, Zonova has a special approach. Her point of departure is the “Concept” of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2013:

The Concept warns that “increasing global competition and growing crisis potential” sometimes “creates a risk of destructive and unlawful use of soft power and human tights concepts to exert political pressure on sovereign states, interfere in their internal affairs, destabilize their political situation, and manipulate public opinion under the pretext of financing cultural and human rights projects abroad.” The new 2016 Russian Foreign Policy Concept employs the same interpretation of soft power policy to establish Russia’s positive image worthy of the high status of its culture, education, science and sports achievements. (154).

Tatiana Zonova views sports diplomacy as an aspect of Russian soft power policy. According to her, Russian sports diplomacy during the World Cup in 2018 became a successful example of the country’s soft power in spite of “the damage to Russia’s image abroad particularly in the aftermath of Crimea’s entry in the Russian Federation.” Calls for boycott “went unheeded”, Zonova asserts, “demonstrating the impotence of Russia’s detractors”.

During the World Cup tournament Russians in the hosting cities showed their benevolent attitude towards foreigners. The foreign visitors learned that Russia was more than Putin. Stereotypes about a fiendish nation were dissolved. According to Zonova this could happen thanks to the fact that Russian sports policy managed to avert international calls for boycott because of the Crimean affair.

The challenge of Pussy Riot may be viewed as an insignificant aberration. However, Iakimova shows that the group is representative of the young, educated generation. The soft power in Russia rests with Pussy Riot and not with President Putin.

Olga Iakimova’s chapter is an analysis of a very special performance in the World Cup as a SME. Four members of the Pussy Riot civic protest movement dressed as policemen managed to enter the pitch in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow during the final match on July 15. Their invasion lasted about 25 seconds. The TV cameras were quickly switched to playbacks. The international television audience did not see much. However, the event became known in Russia. It provoked a discussion in mass media on the very topics that Pussy Riot wanted to highlight.

The group’s non-violent performance became an example of exertion of soft power from below. Iakimova informs that during the tournament no one had drawn attention to all the issues that plagued Russian society such as widespread poverty, corruption and lawlessness “mostly because of the fear of being accused of non-patriotism.” Thanks to the performance of Pussy Riot all this came to the fore and became discussed in the media by government representatives, political activists, protagonists in the cultural scene, and the general public.

Russia and the 2018 FIFA World Cup offers a concise report about the matches in the chapter by Manuel Veit. The only misinformation is to be found in Zonova’s chapter. In an outburst of subconsciously wishful Pan-Slavic thinking, she exclaims concerning the final match: “Following the Croatian victory, Putin had a very warm conversation with the President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović.” (164). In fact, France won.

The anthology gives a readable and informative account of the role of sports in Russian society. The general conclusion is that soft power is not fit for the Russian government or something that Russia’s government is fit for. The challenge of Pussy Riot may be viewed as an insignificant aberration. However, Iakimova shows that the group is representative of the young, educated generation. The soft power in Russia rests with Pussy Riot and not with President Putin.

Russia is not enigmatic at all. It is not that different from other authoritarian states. The chapters in Russia and the 2018 FIFA World Cup show that Russia thanks to its participation in global sports, is linked to the West. It will be very difficult for the present regime to isolate forever the young online generation, sports fans included. This book on the role of sports in Russian society gives credence to a forecast which The Economist made on September 4, 2021: “Mr Putin, who will turn 70 next year, has plenty of repressive tools at his disposal. But the young have one crucial advantage. Time is on their side, not his”.

Sport is politics as soft power. Russia and the 2018 FIFA World Cup demonstrates that it is not propagandistic use of sport in order to embellish the image of a state that matters. What matters is the international media coverage of a major event of Sports Media Entertainment.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2021

Table of Content

Introduction: a sporting riddle wrapped in mystery
Richard Arnold

      1. The state of play in Russian football
        Manuel Veth
      2. Security and the spectacle: the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia’s “safest city”
        Volkan Ipek & Andrey Makarychev
      3. Populist tactics: Ramzan Kadyrov’s use of football as a political tool during the 2018 FIFA World Cup
        Michael Cole
      4. Increased output legitimacy by hosting mega sport events? The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russian Twitter discourse
        Henk Erik Meier, Julia Glathe, Michael Mutz & Martin Hölzen
      5. Sport and domestic “soft power” in Russia: take the skinheads bowling
        Richard Arnold
      6. The case of Pussy Riot’s protest at the World Cup 2018 in Russia: ‘the policeman enters the game’
        Olga Iakimova
      7. Football, film, and the Russian state: an unorthodox alliance
        Peter Rollberg
      8. Russian soft power as a result of FIFA 2018
        Tatiana Zonova
      9. Vladimir Putin, Russian foreign policy, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup: making Russia great again
        Andrew Foxall
      10. Global soft power and local effects of the World Cup in Russia, Brazil, and South Africa
        Marina Mikhaylova
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