From Russia with love: Putin’s World Cup

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By Graduate Consultant David Abbott

As my body clock slowly returned from MSK (Moscow Time) after many long nights on the couch glued to the television for the FIFA World Cup held across Russia in June and July, I was able to apply a different lens to the latest edition of the greatest sporting event on earth. 

During the tournament, like millions of others around the globe, my attention lay with what was happening on the pitch. The pre-tournament favourite Germany crashed out in astonishing fashion. England, perennial disappointments on the world stage, finally did something useful before falling at the second last hurdle to runners-up Croatia. And Russia, the host nation, exceeded all expectations, reaching the quarter finals before a heartbreaking elimination at the hands of Croatia via the cruelest of methods, a penalty shootout. 

After the tournament ended, and with my mind less fixated on the drama of the competition, it struck me that Russia had not only performed extremely well on the pitch, but the Kremlin had also put in a lot of work into Russia’s performance off it. 

Before a ball was kicked, western governments urged their fans to reconsider travelling to Russia, sparked by fears international tensions over the attempted assassination of former spy Sergei Skripal in the UK could boil over into violence. 

Russia’s global reputation was already shaky at best before the assassination attempt, with themes of human rights violations, interference in elections and the jailing of political dissidents dominating international news reports about the country.   

In addition, Russia’s hooligans hold a fearsome reputation with a history of organised violence and racism. In the 2016 European Championships in France, Russian hooligans were in the spotlight after a reportedly organised army of them launched a series of “savaged coordinated attacks” on English fans. 

Yet despite all of this, with the exception of a Pussy Riot organised streak in the final, the World Cup seemed to go off without a hitch, leaving a much different impression of Russia in the minds of all who observed the tournament. 

In the lead up to tournament, knowing his nation was well and truly under the microscope on one of the grandest stages imaginable, Russian President Vladimir Putin put on his PR hat and set about tidying up his house before the inspection. 

It is estimated Russia spent around $14 billion in preparation for the tournament, providing a huge facelift for the cities set to host matches, many of which haven’t seen significant infrastructure development since the Soviet Union’s collapse. 

Immediately after the 2016 European Championships, measures were taken to stamp out violence from Russian football. Despite hooliganism being perhaps as much ingrained in Russian football as the game itself, the Kremlin began a hardline eradication of violent supporters from the game through the establishment of a new anti-extremist department operating from the Interior Ministry. 

Russia has been a much publicised opponent of LGBTI rights, with a ‘gay propaganda’ law adopted in 2013 banning the promotion of homosexuality among people under 18, drawing wide reaching criticism.  

While it’s unlikely the nation’s stance on this position will change, football fans were permitted to display rainbow flags during the tournament and Russian authorities allowed a British protester arrested under general anti-protest laws to leave the country without prosecution. 

The results? The massive suite of media covering the World Cup, including television, daily podcasts, online journals and news reports left an impression of Russia as a lovely place to visit, far removed from the troubles previously guiding negative perceptions. 

There is however a distinct line between propaganda and public relations and whether this impression will last remains to be seen.  

While both practices seek to influence public perception, public relations must be supported by truth for the goodwill attributed to an organisation or entity to continue. 

Vladimir Putin certainly tried to paint Russia in its best light when the country was under the microscope, but if Russia is serious about improving its global reputation this can only be a starting point. 

In the same way a band-aid won’t heal a snake-bite, a cover-up does not constitute good PR. Once the ‘band-aid’ has been removed, the truth invariably prevails, revealing the ugly symptoms which prompted the cover-up in the first place. 

Romantics might believe that the World Cup could act as a springboard for Russia to become a more upstanding global citizen, and you never know, this might be the case. President Trump certainly seems to agree. 

But if the image was all for show, it won’t take long for the good-feeling to fade. Once observers catch on that they might have been misled by Putin’s pretty picture, Russia’s reputation could be even more tarnished than before.

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