The World Cup is a prime opportunity for the host nation to burnish its international image, but Russia’s tensions with the West mean that will prove tricky this year.
After former Russian spy Sergei Skripal was attacked with a nerve agent on an English street, Britain is considering pulling its officials from the tournament in June and July if it is proved that Moscow was behind the poisoning.
Britain’s Daily Mail said that Western nations would hand Russia a “sheen of acceptability and normality, a bloody stamp of approval” by taking part.
However, for Simon Chadwick, a professor who writes about sports and geopolitics at the University of Salford near Manchester, England, the tournament is more about boosting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s image at home than abroad.
“It’s about projecting an image of Russia as strong and powerful,” he said, just as the Kremlin used the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to build Russians’ sense of their nation as a resurgent global power.
In terms of relations with the West, Mathieu Boulegue, Russia research fellow at the Chatham House think tank, said that the tournament would bring “very limited dividends.”
Britain is mulling how to respond if Russia is found responsible for the attack on Sunday last week on Skripal, including a possible boycott of the World Cup suggested on Tuesday by British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson.
However, officials have been quick to clarify that this would affect only officials and dignitaries, not the England squad.
As for Ukraine, the Crimean invasion came just after the Sochi Games, which at home became “almost a symbol of Russia’s ascendancy to becoming a powerful global force again,” Chadwick said.
While hosting the Cup might win few friends abroad, Putin could use the tournament to pull off a similar domestic public relations coup, he added.
The World Cup will also come after months of controversy over the doping of Russian athletes.
The doping scandal had been so huge in scope that it has had the odd effect of eclipsing criticism of Russia’s organization of the World Cup, Chadwick said.
“Compared to Qatar, Russia is getting a relatively easy ride,” he said, referring to criticism of the hosts of the 2022 World Cup. “It’s almost as though the doping scandal has sidetracked any scrutiny of the World Cup.”
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