Eyes Back on Russia: From Excitement to Ennui 

By Jan Maceczek, in collaboration with Michael McAloon and Nat Cooney

Russia 2018 is on track to becoming of the most political World Cups in history, as international tensions continue to grow. The first match on June 14th will be held just less than three months after Vladimir Putin’s reelection. Leading the shift to “sovereign democracy” in Russia, Putin aims to proclaim the country’s readiness to compete on the global stage and to restore an autocracy “governed not by Western meddlers but rather by the Russian Nation[1].” This shift is marked by efforts across every mechanism, ranging from economic and trade developments to an invigorated investment in the nation’s sport programs[2]. While Russia’s economic, military, and diplomatic international activities have been dominating the media in recent years, the nation’s place in the world of sports have also been gaining public notice.

The 2018 World Cup builds on the momentum established by the Sochi Winter Olympics in this regard. While there are notable benefits in such increased prominence, it comes with heavy costs. Russia’s pitch for the World Cup was presented as an opportunity for the country to showcase its progression since the collapse of the Soviet Union, highlighting a diversifying economy, growing infrastructure, and celebrated culture. However, this World Cup will be taking place in the backdrop of growing international tensions, and continuing controversies around human rights in Russia. Unavoidable ethical questions regarding Russia’s economic challenges, regional politics, and human rights surface. To this end, hosting the world’s most popular sporting event entails serious risks for the Russian government. With national pride on the line, the World Cup is perhaps as important to the host nation as it is to the athletes competing in them. Potential troubles for Russia include added stress to the nation’s struggling economy, increased media attention to social rights issues, the performance of Russia’s team, and threatening behavior from local spectators.


Economic Stress

With the Russian economy facing a massive downturn, Putin will boast about how he can still bring these events to Russia. Between 2014 and 2016, Russia was hit on two fronts, as crude oil prices crashed from $108 in September 2013 to under $30 by February 2016, and western sanctions in response to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine cut off funding to Russian companies and banks.[3] Although oligarchs notoriously maintain ownership of soccer clubs, most Russians are getting by on less than $500 a month[4]. This is greatly juxtaposed by the $11.8 billion expected to be spent on the World Cup. Director of the Institute of Strategic Analysis FBK Igor Nikolaev revealed that the World Cup’s cost exceeds Russia’s annual spending on health care by 15-17 percent[5]. The spectacle of hosting World Cup proves a distraction for citizens experiencing the effects of economic downturn, while the privatization the profits and nationalization of costs fulfills the principles of kleptocratcy[6].


Social rights

Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws brought to light during the Sochi Olympics continue to be widely criticized by the international community. We can expect The World Cup to be significantly effected as a result of this direct media exposure. The discrimination against LGBT individuals has long been a problem in Russia, and despite the criticism that followed Sochi, is still widespread. FIFA has issued a statement asking for clarification on the impact of Russia’s anti-gay laws, as Article 3 of the FIFA Code of Conduct has a zero tolerance stance on discrimination against sexual orientation. At the World Cup, Russian officials have stated that rainbow flags will be allowed and assured that LGBT people will not be targeted. Still, an advocacy group that fights discrimination and homophobia in soccer has warned LGBT fans about holding hands in Russia during the World Cup[7]. Putin and members of the Russia 2018 Commission have repeatedly stated that the law is merely intended to protect minors[8]. FARE, Europe’s leading anti-discrimination soccer network, will warn World Cup visitors of the dangers of publicly showing affection in Russian cities. In effect, spectator and tourist numbers may be damaged, with LGBT individuals concerned for their safety.



The Russian team’s performance also proves a factor that may have political effects. The team currently holds the lowest rank of any team to complete in the tournament. Granted automatic qualification as a number one seed in accordance with FIFA rules, the team finds itself in the weakest group in World Cup history[9]. If the team finds success, we can be sure that Putin will take some credit, as he did in Sochi, and claim it is yet another demonstration of the nation’s growing superiority in every field. However, the team’s odds of making it out of the group and making a respectable run in the elimination round remains bleak. If these expectations are to hold however, Putin will likely discount the importance of the sport, and the nation’s low interest in it. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov remarked that “Putin doesn’t really like football” and “we hope the president will find some time on his schedule” to attend matches[10].

However, history should convince Putin otherwise. In the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Brazilian team’s humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semi-finals may have added to the fuels that lead to Rousseff’s removal from office in 2016, as the positive atmosphere the Brazilian government hoped would be brought by the tournament.[11] In 2014, Putin was visibly displeased when the Russian hockey team was defeated by the US in Sochi. Perhaps then, he will find comfort in the US team’s failure to qualify. Still, the World Cup represents a large international stage, and Putin will have a stake in the team’s performance. If it goes down in an embarrassing defeat, which is entirely possible, the symbolic message will be just the opposite of the one Putin is hoping for[12].”



The Russian government also has reason to be concerned about activities beyond the pitch. At the 2016 European Championships, Russian fans built a reputation for directing racist chants at black players. In November of 2012, a Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper was hit by a firecracker thrown by a spectator, and both teams had to be evacuated from the pitch. Alexei Sorokin, CEO the Russia 2018 even committee, has ensured FIFA that such issues of fan hooliganism would not be an issue because new security measures would be deployed[13]. Such behavior would be a public image embarrassment at the very least, given the inclusive nature of sports. More profoundly, foul behavior would be seen as indicative of the nation’s underlying social issues, although soccer has been known to bring out the worst in fans on occasion, even in the most civil nations.


In all, these issues have led to a certain ennui about hosting the World Cup this summer, taking away from the sense of opportunity that was initially intended back when the bid was placed in 2010. Of course, much has changed since then. While international and domestic turbulence is impossible to entirely predict, many of the issues present today were relevant and evident throughout the bidding process.


Return to Politics and Corruption at the 2018 World Cup

How to cite this page:

“Eyes Back on Russia: From Excitement to Ennui ,” Written by Jan Maceczek (2018). Men’s World Cup 2018 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, https://wp.me/P2Bq6D-84g



[1] Milan W. Svolik, The Politics of Authoritarian Rule (Cambridge University Press, 2012): 22

[2] Alexey Mosko, “Russian billionaires and their sports,” Russia Beyond, January 2, 2014, available at: https://www.rbth.com/sport/2014/01/02/russian_billionaires_and_their_sports_32427.html.

[3] Financial Times, “Russia’s Economy: Challenges Facing Vladimir Putin,” February 28, 2018, available at: https://www.ft.com/content/3aac3faa-1bb6-11e8-aaca-4574d7dabfb6.

[4] Garry Kasparov, “Opinion: World Cup 2018 and the ugly side of the beautiful game,” ESPN, March 27, 2018, available at: http://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-world-cup/4/blog/post/3427563/world-cup-2018-russia-is-the-ugly-side-of-the-beautiful-game-says-garry-kasparov.

[5] Dmitry Sudakov, “World Cup 2018 to be Russia’s greatest economic disaster?” Pravda.ru, October 22, 2013,

available at: http://www.pravdareport.com/business/finance/22-10-2013/125968-world_cup_russia-0/.

[6] Kasparov, “World Cup 2018,” ESPN, March 27, 2018.

[7] https://www.outsports.com/2018/4/13/17214362/russia-2018-world-cup-gay-fans

[8] Richard Socarides, “Gay-rights Advocates Prepare for the Sochi Olympics,” The New Yorker, January 6, 2014, available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/gay-rights-advocates-prepare-for-the-sochi-olympics.

[9]Daniel Levitt and Michael Caley, “Russia’s Group Is The Easiest In Modern World Cup History,” December 1, 2017, available at: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/russias-group-is-the-easiest-in-modern-world-cup-history/

[10] Gideon Rachman, “The 2018 soccer World Cup will put Russia in the global spotlight,” The Economist, January 2018, available at: http://www.theworldin.com/edition/2018/article/14401/2018-soccer-world-cup-will-put-russia-global-spotlight.

[11] Rachman, “Russia in the global spotlight” The Economist, January 2018.

[12] Rachman, “Russia in the global spotlight” The Economist, January 2018.

[13] Rachman, “Russia in the global spotlight” The Economist, January 2018.