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The football world cup has overshadowed politics

The beautiful game provides the perfect platform for yet another PR opportunity for Putin PR win, as Trump preens over getting the 2026 event to North America

columns Updated: Jul 06, 2018 20:16 IST
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and FIFA President Gianni Infantino (L) take part in the opening of an exhibition soccer match in the World Cup Football Park in Red Square in central Moscow, Russia on June 28, 2018(REUTERS)

Sometimes when the pitch is flat, it isn’t a terrible thing. The football World Cup in Russia has been on song partly due to the lesser lights proving that the divide between traditional powerhouses and the rest is gradually shrinking.

The early elimination of Germany, Argentina, Portugal and Spain points to that shifting landscape, although enough exciting teams remain for an unpredictable finale. While the matches continue on the field, one winner was on the sidelines during the opening encounter between host Russia and Saudi Arabia. That may well have been an omen for how things have gone for Moscow this summer, and that doesn’t even refer to the home team’s opening performance. There was Russian President Vladimir Putin watching, conveying his wonder at the outcome — not just the scoreline that day, 5-0 for the Russians, but how the tournament has been a publicity coup for the strongman. The carping over the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 was missing, and while there were complaints on how the event was normalising the Putin regime, those dissipated as it progressed.

The World Cup also provides the perfect platform for yet another Putin PR win: The meeting with his American counterpart Donald Trump in Helsinki the day after the final, also just following the NATO summit in Belgium. Timing, as with a striker’s goalward bound shot, is everything and, unless dramatic events happen off the field between now and then, Putin will have already seized that advantage.

Trump is unlikely to be very clued into the niceties of the action on the pitch, but even football has given him yet another opportunity to preen. That, of course, is taking credit for FIFA, football’s governing body, giving the 2026 tournament to the United States, Canada and Mexico. You could call that the NAFTA Cup, except that nobody knows if NAFTA will still be around by then. That cooperative contest has been scheduled even as the continental compact suffers from Trump’s tariff wars and the wild card of a new populist leader in Mexico.

Those will make for a politically-loaded arrangement even as the free trade agreement’s revision or rejection will form a compelling narrative in the years ahead to the World Cup’s buildup. The best part of the 2026 Cup, though probably not for purists, is that it will expand to 48 teams, and with a fourth of the world’s nations represented at North American venues that year, perhaps even India will finally find its place within that fraternity. That may be a distant dream, but sometimes long shots do come off, as the current Cup has again shown.

But for most, the politics pervading these events is, for a while, secondary to the actual action. This truly great game, at least for 90 minutes (or more, during the knockout rounds), thankfully overshadows the Great Game of geopolitics being played out across the world.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 06, 2018 20:15 IST