It is commonly called the “sideshow,” and it’s a feature of every major international sporting event – especially the World Cup. It is the dignitaries and celebrities that pop up in luxury suites, the off-field stories only tangentially related to the games the world has gathered to see.
But at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, through one day at least, it has been the show. There’s been nothing secondary about it. There never is anything secondary about Vladimir Putin.
Russia won the tournament’s opener 5-0 over Saudi Arabia, but the real winner of the World Cup’s first 24 hours has been host nation’s dictatorial president. Putin’s was the prematch speech the world tuned in for; his celebrations, and not the team’s goals, were what social media users GIF’d and meme’d; his postgame call to Russia’s coach was the highlight of an otherwise dull news conference.
But the extent to which he was visible on the tournament’s opening day was striking. It was alarming. It was discomforting.
The Infantino-Putin lovefest
In fact, Putin was on the offensive before the tournament even kicked off. He charmed the 68th FIFA Congress on Wednesday morning. He kissed up to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and Infantino, beholden to Putin and host nation, kissed right back.
“He is very good as our frontman, as a true fighter,” Putin said of Infantino.
“On behalf of the entire world of football … from the bottom of our heart, a big thank you to you, Mr. Putin,” Infantino responded. “For your engagement, for your passion, for really making us feel part of the same team.”
Never mind, of course, that Putin and his regime are responsible, directly or indirectly, for thousands of deaths; for deviously influencing the results of foreign elections; and for various other abhorrent behavior.
Intantino needs Putin, because he needs FIFA’s banner event to be a success. Putin needs Infantino, because he knows the value of the World Cup to Russia’s international image. But the cuddly relationship between the two, if not inexplicable, should make humans everywhere uncomfortable; and it should infuriate us.
Putin steals show at World Cup opener
Infantino and FIFA again gave Putin a platform before the opener. He spoke to the crowd, and the crowd cheered, almost as if applause was obligatory. He spoke of using soccer as a unifying force, and called Russia “an open, hospitable and friendly country,” even as he divides and oppresses people every day.
Putin is such a controversial and despised figure that his every action attracts attention. After at least three of Russia’s goals, the broadcast cut to him, sitting alongside Infantino and Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. Videos and GIFs of his celebrations flooded Twitter.
After the match, he met up with Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. And that incredibly awkward picture, with CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani looking sheepish in the background, made the rounds and inspired jokes:
Then Putin phoned Russian national team manager Stanislav Cherchesov during the coach’s post-match news conference. Cherchesov dipped out of the room to take the call, then returned and gave his explanation:
So Putin even made his way into postgame coverage that way. He was everywhere.
It is no surprise that he was somewhere. Almost all presidents make appearances when their nations kick off World Cups. But can you remember any from Brazil’s president four years ago? Could you even put a face or a name on him or her? Probably not. Putin is different. And that’s exactly the point.
How Putin is using the World Cup
Putin and Russia commit atrocities of all kinds. But a World Cup gives him and his nation a chance to put on a good face. The world merely gets a superficial, doctored glance at the country. They see montages of landmarks and pretty-looking skylines. They read and hear stories about Russian culture. They see the rosy stuff.
They don’t see the brutality of Putin’s regime; the meddling in foreign elections; the cyberwarfare; the actual warfare in Ukraine; the support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad; the oppression of journalists; the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy, which led several politicians to boycott the World Cup; and so on.
The World Cup obscures all that. By gifting the event to Putin and Russia, FIFA is implicitly condoning everything he and his state do. As Yahoo Sports’ Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote:
There isn’t a whole lot out there that will make a government of dubious character or legitimacy look better than putting on a successful sporting mega-event. FIFA portends to forbid the injection to politics into its affairs, but it will once again willingly submit to the hijacking of its signature tournament by a bad actor for propagandist purposes.
This is what Putin is doing. This is why he wants to be so visible alongside a sporting event that so many people enjoy. And so far, he’s succeeding.
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