Regardless of who lifts the World Cup trophy on Sunday July 15th, it could be argued that the winner was known in advance. Russia—and perhaps more specifically Vladimir Putin himself—are the true winners of the 2018 FIFA men’s World Cup finals.
The Russian team exceeded expectations. The host nation doesn’t have to qualify for each tournament, thus the advantage of a guaranteed appearance is often outweighed by the lack of competitive games.
But the real victory for the Russians was not been over-performing relative to their low ranking in world football—65th just behind the Cape Verde Islands—but by winning the corrupt bidding process through which FIFA awarded the games to Russia in the first place.
As much as the games are an international celebration of footballing cultures, dramatic last-minute goals and the very human emotions of joy and pain, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that sporting mega-events like the World Cup and the Summer Olympic Games are also inherently political affairs.
Whilst FIFA and its corporate sponsors promote the noble idea that sport transcends politics, the reality is that modern sports are powerful spectacles that promote nationalism as much as universal humanism. Mega-events often help despotic regimes and leaders maintain their power over their countries, and even in liberal democracies serve to divert pubic funds away from essential social services for the many towards private profits for the corporate few.
We see the amazing made-for-TV sporting spectacles but not the pain, exploitation and oftentimes lost lives of migrant laborers brought in to build stadiums for the athletes and the related infrastructure for the traveling sports fans.
In this sense, some argue that sports work more like a distorting mirror. Rather than revealing fundamental human truths they cover up the ugly realities of exploitation and political expediency.
But none of this is new.
Sporting mega-events have never been bid for or staged for the “love of the game” but for power and prestige. Sporting mega-events are politics by other means. As George Orwell polemically put it back in 1945, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”
Of course this runs against the commonly held view of sports. We seem to have a collect investment in the inherently positive values of sports, despite abundant evidence of rule-breaking, the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, financial corruption and worse.
Yet, the ideology of sports is powerful.
It was Nelson Mandela, speaking in 2000, who said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
Few sporting events are as powerful and reach as many people around the globe as the men’s football World Cup. But we need to recognize that the real winners and losers are rarely the players on the field, but the political and economic elites in the executive boxes. When asked to predict the winner of the World Cup at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in May, Putin replied that “the winners will be the organizers”—by which he meant, of course, himself.
For once Putin wasn’t lying.
Ben Carrington is a British sociologist currently teaching at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is regarded as one of the world’s leading scholars on the sociology of race and culture, especially in relation to sport, and he is the author of Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora, published by Sage in 2010.