by contributing writer Emily Colby
The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is officially off to the races, or to the pitch, rather. For the next month, soccer enthusiasts from all over the globe will watch and root for their favorite teams to take home the sought-after trophy. Those lucky enough, will watch the games live throughout the massive Russian nation hosting the games.
The World Cup, for most people, is about soccer. But if you know anything at all about Russia’s soccer record, you might be scratching your head as to why the country wanted, and got the World Cup. For one, it is the second-lowest ranking team at the Cup this year, before South Korea, and its team did not qualify at all in 2010. Russia, may be well-suited for bobsled racing and several other athletic pursuits, but it is not particularly known for its soccer record. Russian President, Vladimir Putin himself, while a proud fan of ice-hockey, did not seem to ever express much interest in the beautiful game, until he began vying for the Cup back in 2010.
So what goals did Putin have in mind ten years ago when the country was awarded with the tournament? In a news briefing after it had been announced Russia would be hosting in 2018, Putin put it like this: “A lot of stereotypes from previous times, from the Cold War era, fly all over Europe, and they frighten people. The more contact we have, the more these stereotypes will be destroyed.” This suggests that for Putin, and Russia at large, the World Cup is less about soccer and more about national identity.
When Putin posited this reasoning back in 2010, today’s hectic, political world stage might have seemed unpredictable. Today in 2018, Russia seems to be in dire need of improvements in its branding to the Western world. As Ken Bensinger of the New York Times recently put it, “In the past few years, Russia has been accused of interfering in foreign elections, sponsoring cyberwarfare, poisoning enemies with nerve agents, invading Ukraine and abetting a murderous dictatorship in Syria. The country has somehow found a place at or near the center of nearly every geopolitical conspiracy.”
And Russia seems to be well-aware of its need for an image change. The nation has been hard at work to prepare for a “Western-friendly” reception ahead this year’s World Cup, going so far as to conduct “smiling training” for Russian FIFA employees working the match. One cannot help but wonder if these efforts are purely in pursuit of an excellent customer experience, or if there is something hidden to be found beneath these fabricated grins.