At large: Political footballs at the Fifa World Cup

In his new column, SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly reflects on a soccer match which may well have been distracting us from other matters.

At large: Political footballs at the Fifa World Cup

“I wanted to underline Fifa’s commitment to the principle of sports without politics.”

Far be it from me to impugn the honesty of Russian president Vladimir Putin, but I’m not sure how accurate that statement is.

Politics, as we all well know, has nothing to do with sport unless it does. The Olympic movement can claim credit for peace in the Korean Peninsula but there have to be limits. Let’s not discuss the invasion of neighbouring territories, the mysterious deaths of hostile journalists, the poisoning of overseas intelligence operatives, the downing of passenger aircraft or the state-backed doping of international athletes here.

Haven’t you heard? There’s a World Cup on.

Thursday’s Robbie Williams-helmed opening ceremony in Moscow was of a piece with Putin’s argument. Dancers wearing shellsuits covered in footballs, some wearing football-shaped headgear, and others riding football-shaped spacehoppers, all bopped their way across the pitch to join the gnarled crooner and Port Vale devotee on a giant football-shaped stage in the centre circle.

It was subtle, but I think we got it.

Not for the Russia 2018 organisers those ruminations on local history and culture that marked, say, the opening of Rio 2016. Which is all well and good, but the absence of commentary is a comment in itself – and a pretty strong one in the circumstances of a game like the World Cup opener.

Russia’s cannon-fodder opponents for their opening skirmish were, of course, Saudi Arabia, whose own government has made sport a central pillar of attempts to diversify away from a dependence on oil and draw attention to some fractional social reforms. Where Russia at least went to the trouble of bidding for an existing Fifa tournament, the Saudis would prefer one of their own – backing a US$25 billion consortium to buy the rights to an expanded Club World Cup and earning Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s attention in the process.

That kind of thing is all in a day’s work just now for the Mohammed Bin Salman, the 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince. MBS – or as he’s sometimes known, ‘Mr Everything’ – has been vaulted into power during some interesting times in his nation’s history. As well as leading the ‘Vision 2030’ programme for the country, which has variously resulted in women being allowed to drive and allegedly corrupt senior figures lingering in curious five-star imprisonment in luxury hotels, he has formed part of a government involved in nearby internal conflicts in Yemen and in Syria – where Russia has an opposing interest.

Then there is the ongoing neighbourhood dispute between a Saudi-led bloc of Gulf nations and the host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar. That has apparently deepened past economic resolution and the ‘bitterly held point of principle’ stage to a phase where only the most creative means of oneupmanship will suffice.

An upstart Saudi pay-TV broadcaster called BeoutQ has apparently been ripping off the feed of Qatar’s blocked BeIN Sport, wholesale, and barely even gone to the trouble of passing it off as its own. Meanwhile, mischievous rumours have circulated that the sudden Saudi interest in Fifa is itself a vehicle for disrupting Qatar’s tournament in four years. Perhaps the least substantiated but most amusing of these is that the Saudis are encouraging a push by South America’s Conmebol to expand the competition to 48 teams, confident that Qatar would have little chance of staging that on its own.

So it came to pass that Infantino was sitting between a pair of authoritarian principals in the stands at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium – the three of them starring in a kind of VVIP recreation of those slightly off-feeling ads for televisions where actors from central casting cheer randomly in generic team colours – as the hosts romped to a 5-0 victory. Infantino, too, would probably rather focus on the football but most of FIFA’s prospective income right now seems to be in the service of some nation-building project or other, whether that’s sponsorship rushing in from China on the back of Xi Jinping’s vast soccer initiative or the regional supporter deal signed with state-backed Egypt Experience & Invest on the eve of the World Cup.

That phenomenon is at least partly rooted in the decision to grant Russia this World Cup eight years ago, not to mention the manner by which that decision was made, as western blue-chip corporates have slunk away. Yet it’s also the case that the sports industry has still not quite developed the tools to protect itself from political hijack. At the biggest events, top-down sponsorship activation methods and the picture-postcard shorthand required by mass media practically invite it.

There are signs, though, that this can change, which would only be a good thing. Russia is not Vladimir Putin: it’s a nation of close to 150 million people spread over a vast land mass and an even vaster range of human experiences. This tournament should really be theirs.

There are routes to their stories. Before kick-off, the BBC sent the caustic Scottish stand-up Frankie Boyle on a frank yet surprisingly warm journey through the late Russian winter, where he encountered rapping Cossacks and games of five-a-side on motorbike. And digital fan channel Copa90 has won coverage the length and breadth of the mainstream media – as well as in outlets not far from here – for turning its cameras away from the game towards the life all around. Its team will be more active than ever in the weeks to come.

Brands are invited more and more to integrate themselves into output like this and while it takes work, engaging with it thoughtfully can deliver tangible results, not least if it can bring products into viewers’ lives in appropriate contexts. And even if diffuse, imaginative, bottom-up coverage won’t bring down oppressive governments, or turn them off elite sport, it might at least soften their grip on events and make it harder to exploit them for perceptual gain.

It may be something to think about, and to work towards. But not now, you know? The World Cup’s on.