© Yuri CORTEZ, AFP

Whether devout football fans or opportunists profiting from the mass exposure the World Cup provides, leaders of countries participating in the tournament are using football as a means of communication, and even propaganda.

The World Cup in Russia has been under way for over a week now, and despite some of the games not living up to the event’s expectations, politics have dominated the pitch. Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Senegalese and French counterparts, Macky Sall and Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and even the Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei and his regional arch-rival, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have all shown interest, albeit to varying degrees, in this year’s World Cup.

Whether they are truly passionate about football or trying to capitalise on the event’s unparalleled exposure, heads of state made sure to show pictures of themselves with their national team and even to attend games in person. But whether they have reaped the political benefits of these PR stunts remains to be seen.

A global forum for Putin

Even before kickoff, there were heated debates that Putin would politically exploit the event.

“Putin will face an uphill battle trying to restore his reputation among Westerners and the World Cup won’t help change or impact the ideas that are already formed about him,” Pascal Boniface, director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations and author of ‘The Football Empire’, told FRANCE 24. “At the domestic level, football will do little in terms of the president’s popularity, especially since he already got re-elected,” he added.

Putin attended the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia (5-0) where he broke with tradition to make a speech before kickoff and praise his country’s values.

He did not, however, attend Russia’s second match versus Egypt.

The Russians feared national humiliation at the tournament, reminiscent of the team’s performance during the preparation matches. However, to the Kremlin’s delight, the “sbornaya” exceeded expectations by delivering strong results. The Russian government is known for using sport to promote policy. Even Putin resorts to such techniques, sometimes appearing in Judo or hockey matches.

“Besides the Russian national team’s results, winning the bid to organise the World Cup is considered a victory for the Kremlin. It builds the country’s soft power and that of its president,”…