Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline, “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” In a new article, Peter Rutland, the Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought, writes about the FIFA World Cup being hosted by Russia. Though Russia’s team is not expected to perform very well, he writes, leader Vladimir Putin understands the power of sports to “foment feelings of national pride” and boost his own popularity among the Russian people. Rutland is also professor of government; professor of Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies; tutor in the College of Social Studies; and director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life.
One likely winner of the World Cup? Putin
Half a million soccer fans will head to Russia to watch their national teams compete in the FIFA World Cup. Billions more around the world will watch on television. Brazil and Germany are favorites to win the trophy.
But we already know one person who will emerge as a winner: Vladimir Putin.
No one is expecting the Russian team to do very well in the tournament. FIFA’s official rankings place Russia 70th in the world – the team’s worst ever rating, and a precipitous fall from the 24th place it enjoyed as recently as 2015. Soccer is nevertheless a popular spectator sport in Russia, where sport and nationalism are closely intertwined.
As editor of Nationalities Papers, the journal of the Association for Study of Nationalities, I find that our most-read articles are often those involving soccer, a sport that can serve as a focal point for nationalist mobilization.
Putin seems to understand the ability of sport to foment feelings of national pride – and, in turn, has repeatedly used sporting events to enhance his popular standing at home.
Putin’s pet project
In 2010 Moscow won its bid to host the 2018 Cup, a successful pitch that was very much Putin’s personal project. He even traveled to Zurich and gave an emotional speech thanking FIFA for the honor. A few years later, corruption scandals brought down most of the FIFA board that had made this decision.
But by then, the decision had been finalized: Putin was set to be the first autocrat to host the World Cup since Argentina’s military junta in 1978.
Now, as the World Cup begins, Russia’s standing in the world is at an all-time low.