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Sun 17 Jun 2018 02:59 PM

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FIFA World Cup 2018: political battlefield or unifying force?

Whether we like it or not, global politics cannot be separated from the world's most popular sporting event - as the next four weeks will no doubt prove, argues Bernd Debusmann Jr

FIFA World Cup 2018: political battlefield or unifying force?
Perfect host? the 2018 World Cup has thrown up plenty of potential flashpoints

Despite Vladimir Putin’s effusive “thank you” to FIFA last week for separating sports from politics, this year’s World Cup is anything but apolitical.

Football is, and has always been, an on-the-pitch extension of global issues, and nowhere is this more evident than in what is undoubtedly the world’s most popular sporting event.

Looking back at the history of previous World Cups, the action is always closely intertwined with the politics of the time.

In 1982, for example, the UK’s government mulled over the possibility of boycotting the event if it meant having to play alongside Argentina, with whom they were at war over the frigid and far-flung Falkland Islands.

Four years later in Mexico, the Argentines knocked England out of the tournament, an event football icon Diego Maradona said was “revenge” for Argentina’s military defeat in the south Atlantic.

While there are many other examples of politics and football coming together at the World Cup, the 2018 event may go down as one of the most politicised in its 88-year history.

Russia, the event’s hosts, has re-emerged as a world superpower, and one that stirs up strong feelings both for and against it – particularly in this region.

The 2018 event may go down as one of the most politicised in its 88-year history”

However one feels about the Russian government, there is no doubt that its role in the world is now as hotly debated as that of the United States.

Avid news readers will remember the announcement of Russia’s winning bid was met with vocal condemnation from a number of European politicians, including then British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, who called for a boycott following the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Since then, Russia has been accused of propping up the Assad regime in Syria, poisoning dissidents on British streets and fiddling with America’s democratic process.

Rightly or wrongly, it is through this new Cold War lens that many people will view Russia’s FIFA World Cup.

Political footballs

Even before Russia and Saudi Arabia kicked off the event last Thursday, the politicking began.

The Egyptian FA faced criticism for situating their training base in the formerly war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, prompting accusations that local strongman Ramzan Kadyrov was using the footballers – the Arab’s world favourite player, Mohamed Salah, in particular – for political gain.

Last week, sportswear giant Nike announced the withdrawal of its supply of boots to Iran’s team due to the re-imposition of US sanctions on the country. And just as Brexit will follow the English hordes around, few teams can escape pressing domestic political agendas.

Indeed, deciding who gets to host future World Cups is a study in international diplomacy. As this issue was going to press, it was announced that a joint bid from Canada, the United States and Mexico beat Morocco for the right to co-host the 2026 World Cup.

Not only did the voting process expose the many intricate intra-regional alignments in this part of the world, it wasn’t lost on anyone that the announcement came the same week as Canadian PM Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump exchanged verbal jabs about tariffs like schoolyard rivals following a contentious G7 meeting.

The decision also comes at a time in which Mexican-American relations are at all-time low, and in which the only thing that Mexico’s electoral candidates seem to be able to agree upon is a shared sense of revulsion for the American president.

For the sake of football – and perhaps more importantly commerce – these differences will probably be cast aside.

And the world would be a better place if, for that one month every four years, politics were cast aside and everyone came together to enjoy the football. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.

Politics in football is here to stay. And this World Cup might prove it like no other before.

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