The Politics of the Football World Cup

Over 3 billion people were watching the World Cup in 2014, so it is safe to assume that many people are starting to get excited about the upcoming competition. This time it is to be held in Russia. In a few months, the world will throb for the biggest sporting event and 32 nations will fight for the ultimate victory. This World Cup will be played in 12 different stadiums, in 11 different cities; from Kaliningrad, right next to Poland, to the Olympic Stadium in Sochi. Moscow will be the centre of the competition: both the opening match and the final will be at the Luzhniki Stadium. This 21st World Cup will also be one of several “firsts”, with Russia hosting it for the first time and Iceland and Panama as novel participants. Germany will also look to get their first back-to-back titles after their victory 4 years ago, appearing as strong favourites once again, along with Brazil.

However, the World Cup is about more than just football. The politics behind it have often been gruesome since 1934, when Mussolini’s fascist Italy organized the second ever World Cup with the goal to fuel nationalism and show the world its strength. 44 years later, in 1978, Argentina won its first World Cup, at home. In a complex political context, with a US-backed military junta ruling the country, the World Cup allowed a dictatorship to appear in a good light while political opponents were detained and tortured in the ESMA, a clandestine detention centre close enough for the prisoners to hear the celebrations. And now, 40 years later, all eyes will turn to Russia with football similarly overshadowing the allegations of breaches of human rights from the Russian government; from the anti-gay purge in Chechnya to the crackdown of political opponents. It would be foolish to imagine that Russia’s desire to organise the World Cup stemmed mainly from a love of the beautiful game: Putin isn’t a football fan and, contrary to the 2014 Olympics, chances of the Sbornaya winning and bringing glory to the Motherland on home soil are slim.

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Despite stating that promoting football in the light of its cultural and humanitarian values is one of its main objectives, FIFA has over the years consistently failed to show morality when it came to the choice of host countries. From choosing the country that was willing to take care of any losses of money incurred in 1934 to the outright corruption that has been alleged to be behind the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, money has become the primary – and pretty much the sole – criterion for a country to host a World Cup. The politics of that country or even details like the weather in the Middle East in the summer do not appear to matter.

Distancing football from these issues appears difficult as FIFA isn’t likely to start prioritising human rights over money anytime soon. Countries also rarely act against the federation: we can wonder whether the US would have been as involved in the denunciation of the corruption and bribery in FIFA had they not lost to Qatar for the organization of the 2022 World Cup. The recent announcement of UK ministers and royal family members boycotting the World Cup is in response to the poisoning of the former spy and has little to do with the overall situation in Russia. As individuals fans don’t have enough impact: a handful of people refusing to watch the World Cup is unlikely to have any effect on FIFA.

As for whether Scotland will qualify for the 2022 World Cup after missing out on this year’s edition I would say that,while Scotland has, just like every other team, chances of qualifying, I wouldn’t bet on them. Maybe the addition of Manchester United’s Scott McTominay will give the Tartan Army the boost it needs to qualify for its first World Cup since 1998. But then again, considering that the 2022 World Cup will be a dry tournament, with no alcohol allowed except in isolated deserts, maybe Scotland might want to pass on and wait to return in 2026, when 16 additional teams will be allowed.

By Sophie Dagens