Putin's World Cup a prestige boost for sanctions-hit host
MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin's Russia was always going to be a controversial host, but few could have imagined the turbulent situation that greets the 2018 World Cup.
The annexation of Crimea, alleged U.S. election interference, the war in Syria and a poisoned spy in Britain are just a few of the storms surrounding the Kremlin before Putin officially declares the tournament open on June 14.
Russia's disputes with the United States and many European countries have galvanized Putin's support at home against a backdrop of economic problems. He won re-election in March with nearly 77 percent of the vote, though leading opponent Alexei Navalny was barred from running because of a fraud conviction widely seen as politically motivated.
Russia's reputation as a sports power has been tarnished internationally by doping scandals but a successful World Cup could further boost Putin's prestige in the eyes of a Russian audience.
"Putin needed the World Cup mainly for domestic purposes, and I think it will serve him well in that sense, just like Sochi did," Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told The Associated Press. "The World Cup takes his approval rating up, because most people like watching football. Albeit a short-lived one, it will nonetheless be a distraction from the post-Soviet reality."
There have been controversial World Cup hosts before — Argentina hosted the 1978 tournament two years after a military coup — but it's rare for the host nation to be under international sanctions.
Many leading Russian officials and companies find it hard, if not impossible, to do business internationally under United States and European Union measures imposed due to the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and Russian backing for separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
In March the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, even compared Russia's World Cup to the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Germany. That remark caused widespread outrage in Russia, a country which lost millions of people fighting Nazism during World War II. Britain has accused Russia of involvement in poisoning Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal in March.
The U.S. may not have qualified, but it's a key market for FIFA and a likely host for 2026. Russia's reputation there has been hit by allegations it tried to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of the winner, Donald Trump.
All that will likely negate a popularity boost from the World Cup, argues opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov.
"If the Russian government really wanted to strengthen their reputation around the world," he said, "they shouldn't have gotten involved in military conflicts in Eastern Ukraine or Syria, nor should they have interfered in the US presidential election or let the Skripal case happen. All of this trumps any attempt of improving our image around the world."
Political leaders from the Western countries which have imposed sanctions on Russia could face a dilemma if their country does well at the World Cup.
While many European leaders have been reluctant to visit Putin's Kremlin in recent years, and British officials and the royal family are staging a formal boycott, they could face pressure to travel and support a national team which reaches the semifinals or final.
"The average voter would like to see his country's leaders present at the stadium for the crucial match," said Alexander Baunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "And those leaders will face a difficult choice."
More broadly, Russia's World Cup has struggled to attract fans from many European countries. Sales in South America have been strong, but countries like England and even world champion Germany have lagged behind.
TROUBLE AT HOME
Putin has consistently high approval ratings but many Russians are still unhappy with the stuttering economy and official corruption.
However, they don't tend to blame Putin, who's still widely credited with stabilizing Russia in the early 2000s following the chaotic post-Soviet 1990s. Local officials, ministers or the ruling United Russia party, are all targets of popular ire and tend to have significantly lower popularity than Putin in polling.
The World Cup could help Putin appear as a man of the people.
"The purpose of offering football to the people of the world and the Russian people, while bypassing the elite, is similar to his conservative or anti-migration messages to Europe," Baunov said.
Political protests will be heavily restricted during the World Cup and unsanctioned demonstrations could provoke a heavy-handed police response. There will be tight security around all 11 host cities, though the incidence of gun or bomb attacks by Islamist groups has dropped dramatically in recent years, something many Russians see as another success for the Putin era.
When Russia won the right to host the World Cup in 2010, Putin boasted of Russia's strong GDP growth, "sustainable development of four percent a year." However, Russia's now emerging from a recession caused by sanctions and low oil prices, and the International Monetary Fund predicts growth is of just 1.7 percent this year.
The Russian government says the World Cup will boost economic growth for years to come, though that analysis is widely disputed.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi looked like an unquestioned success for Putin, even as the crisis in neighboring Ukraine started to sap attention from the games.
Four years on, Russia's unbeatable gold-medal haul has been tarnished by revelations of widespread doping across multiple sports, including soccer. FIFA has investigated some Russian players but says it found no evidence the current World Cup squad was implicated.
Even the bidding process tore apart soccer's world governing body.
FIFA has had dozens of senior officials suspended or indicted in a series of overlapping investigations since 2010, when FIFA gave the 2018 tournament to Russia and the 2022 edition to Qatar.
The surprise winners — especially Qatar, with almost no soccer history — prompted suspicions of corruption.
A FIFA investigation didn't accuse Russia's bid of wrongdoing but noted it hadn't given investigators access to emails and files from the process because the computers had been destroyed. The man who fronted Russia's bid, Alexei Sorokin, is now CEO of the World Cup organizing committee.
PUTIN AS SPORTS FAN
The Russian president loves ice hockey but doesn't seem much of a soccer fan.
He's kicked a ball around with FIFA president Gianni Infantino and toured empty stadiums, but attends far fewer games than a keen fan like German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Putin watched the 2014 World Cup final alongside Brazil's then-president and opened last year's Confederations Cup, the main World Cup test event, when Russia beat New Zealand 2-0.
The last time Putin watched a club game live appears to be a 2011 friendly in Serbia during a state visit.
Russia's soccer team offers little in the way of reflected glory, having failed to go past the group stage of any tournament since 2008. By contrast, Russia's the reigning Olympic ice hockey champion.
Putin's expected to attend the opening game June 14, when Russia plays Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are the only team of the 32 at the World Cup which is ranked lower than Russia.
Francesca Ebel and Vladimir Kondrashov in Moscow contributed to this report.