Russia 2018: Could the World Cup be Boycotted?

Russia 2018: Could the World Cup be Boycotted?

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By Luca Hodges-Ramon –

The Russian World Cup is still three years away but if the current hostilities between the West and the Kremlin continue, could we be left with a situation similar to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics?

On January 20, 1980, President James Carter appeared on the American talk show Meet the Press to deliver an ultimatum. “Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan.” Carter continued. “I have sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own positon, that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to an alternative site, or multiple sites, or postponed or cancelled

Carter was well aware of the political backlash an Olympic boycott might carry. The move would undoubtedly revive Cold War tensions between the US and the Soviet Union, tensions which had ameliorated in the mid-1970s with both nations seemingly preoccupied with domestic issues: the US with the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate and Moscow with its economic immobility.

Carter also risked suffering the condemnation of the media and US athletes for triggering events that could dismantle the Olympic movement. In fact, when Rolf Pauls, Nato’s West German ambassador, first put the proposal to the White House Carter admitted the idea sent “cold chills” down his spine.

The 1980 Boycott: A failed Political Gambit 

In reality, the boycott initially garnered broad support within American society. This was reflected in the media. The Washington Star columnist, Mary McGrory, proclaimed “It’s hard to think of much, short of a nuclear strike, that would inflict more pain [on the Soviet Union]” and results of a Boston Herald American survey found that 85.5 percent of its readers supported a boycott.

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Opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympics.

In the White House, Zbigniew Brezezinksi, Carter’s national security advisor, saw an opportunity for the President to dispel doubts surrounding his ability to handle matters of foreign policy while Vice President Walter Mondale argued the boycott “could capture the imagination of the American people.”

Thus, despite Carters apprehensions, popular support combined with the guidance of his advisors forced his hand. Much to the displeasure of many US athletes and the International Olympic Committee, Jimmy Carter obstinately proceeded with the boycott. Roy Kissin, a marathon runner in the US Olympic team lamented, “I’m sick and tired of being someone’s political pawn.”

Perhaps Carter would have been better served listening to the advice of both CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner and American member of the IOC Julian Roosevelt, both of whom believed the boycott would do little to force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. They were right; the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan for another decade while Jimmy Carter’s administration was left embarrassed by their political misjudgement.

Much of the international community, including one of their closes allies Great Britain, failed to support the boycott and the repercussions continued four years later as the Kremlin and its allies led their own boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.

Russia 2018: Playing the War Drum

Today, calls to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia have already found voice within Western media outlets and among politicians including two US senators. But with the World Cup just three years away and little sign of tensions abating, could history repeat itself?

In November last year, former Soviet Union leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, warned that tensions between the US and Russia regarding Ukraine had put the world on the brink of a new cold war.

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Merkel, Putin, and Hollande in Moscow.

Since then, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande travelled to Kiev and Moscow in a diplomatic attempt to broker a ceasefire between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine. While the Minsk ceasefire appears to be holding in that both sides claim to be withdrawing heavy weapons from the front-line, tensions remain high with casualties still being reported in the Donbass.

The posturing from both sides continues and the most recent developments have seen US and Russian military units make menacing force demonstrations just miles apart on opposite sides of the Estonian border. Britain has also weighed in after Prime Minister David Cameron announced UK military trainers would be deployed to offer training and tactical intelligence to Ukrainian forces. According to the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour, it was a move that pulled Britain “closer towards a renewed cold war with Russia.”

Recently Michael Fallon, Britain’s defence secretary, has warned that Vladimir Putin could attempt to foment tensions in the Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania by utilising similar destabilising tactics as those demonstrated in the Ukraine. Latvia for example, has large numbers of Russian-speaking communities and according to Latvian government statistics in 2011, around 550, 000 ethnic Russians live in the country, more or less a quarter of the population.

Boycotting Russia 2018: The wrong kind of precedent

But is there a genuine possibility of a boycott? On face value it would appear not, yet the idea has already circulated within some quarters. According to the Financial Times, the possibility was considered by some European diplomats while back in August 2014, the UK’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg imprudently affirmed that stripping Russia of the World Cup would be a “very potent political and symbolic action.”

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg: stripping Russia of the World Cup would be a “very potent political and symbolic action.”

Such calls lack both conviction and foresight. They may also have been initiated by an ongoing sense of injustice within Britain regarding FIFA’s decision to snub their 2018 World Cup bid in favour of Russia. Following FIFA’s decision in 2010, a Daily Mail headline fumed “England loses bid to host World Cup to ‘mafia state’ Russia.” This reckless headline illustrates the embarrassing lack of partiality in some corners of the British media but the sphere of influence these tabloids hold in society should not be underestimated.

Whether or not this is representative of an underlying campaign to derail Russia 2018, it is extremely doubtful that the World Cup would be cancelled or the host changed. FIFA would not only stand to lose a lot of money but such a decision would also place them in the eye of a political storm. Instead FIFA have rolled out the customary trite sentiments claiming the World Cup can be a “powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments.”

As David McArdle argued in a previous article on Futbolgrad, stripping Russia of the World Cup would set the wrong kind of precedent, one which “feeds seamlessly into Putin’s overarching rhetoric about the West and its double standards.” He adds that this could result in “opposition to the USA’s planned bid for the 2026 World Cup on similar geo-political grounds.” Nevertheless, would individual nations consider refusing to participate in the World Cup?

Analysing Europe, despite the European Union’s superficial unity in confronting Russia, the underlying competing national interests significantly weakens their position. It is highly unlikely that any of Europe’s most prominent nations would risk standing alone in boycotting a World Cup. Germany for example remains heavily reliant on Russia for energy supplies, with much of the countries natural gas and oil imports sourced from Russian energy suppliers. As such, it has neither the leverage nor the economic base from which to lead a boycott.

Will Russia 2018 result in a Grant Statement by the United States?

Once again this leaves the US as one of the few countries with the political and economic clout to take such an action. While some might question the US’s influence within the global footballing community, the US is a political juggernaut and the consequences of a World Cup boycott would still reverberate globally. Europe for example, would be put under considerable pressure to follow suit, especially the US’s closest allies such as the UK and France.

But between now and 2018, what are the factors that could influence a US boycott?  The fraught relations between the US and Moscow have seen anti-Russian sentiment surge among Americans. A CNN/ORC International survey conducted back in July 2014 revealed that just 19 percent of Americans had a favourable opinion of Russia, compared to the 57 percent that was recorded back in 2011. While the tensions remain high, these sentiments are unlikely to have diminished.

But these sentiments are not reserved to the average citizen; they are also finding voice among American politicians. At the meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the US ambassador Samantha Power responded to a resolution drafted by Russia in support of the Minsk agreement with scathing criticism.

Russia champions the sovereignty of nations and then acts as if a neighbour’s borders do not exist.” This is a quintessential example of the more hawkish sentiments within US government, sentiments that could lead to increasing public pressure regarding the handling of foreign relations with Putin.

In 2016, the US will also undergo presidential elections and with Barack Obama having served his maximum eight years in office, the country will have a new leader. Whether the president is a Democrat or a Republican, they will begin their tenure with some challenging questions regarding Russia foreign policy, especially from the more hawkish elements of American politics and society.

Of course the equally vocal and increasing anti-American sentiment in Russia may also serve to reinforce the boycott lobby on the grounds of safety concerns for a US World Cup team and travelling American fans. Furthermore, given the fact that ‘soccer’ remains behind other sporting events in terms of popularity; could a White House administration see the World Cup as an event worth sacrificing in order to impose more stringent sanctions on the Kremlin? With these factors in mind, one can begin to envisage an environment in which a boycott could become a reality.

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A worthy sacrifice? The US national team here at the 2014 World Cup.

The absence of an American World Cup team would do little to disrupt the tournament. But in this instance, football would become a sideshow in such a politically loaded statement. As in 1980, the US would most probably call upon the support of European countries, some of whom (England, France, Italy and Germany) hold considerable sway in world football.

Moscow 1980: An important political lesson for Russia 2018

The US boycotted the Moscow Olympics on the pretext of achieving a political end – forcing the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. Presumably a boycott of Russia 2018 would be driven by similar motives.

But the Olympic boycott hardly proved an unmitigated success for the Carter administration and demonstrates that this is not the solution if the West harbours hopes of reaching détente with Russia. FIFA used this as a theme through which to deter similar plans. “History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems.”

The lessons of 1980 should prove more than enough to dissuade prospective boycotters, especially the US. Apart from further corroding relations with Russia, a boycott would heap unnecessary pressure on their allies as well as potentially alienating the soccer community. However history has a habit of repeating itself. American and British politicians have already been guilty of using accusatory language in relation to Russia and the volatility of the situation may yet produce a political environment toxic enough to fuel another ill-considered decision. Before Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan on the 25th of December 1979, it’s highly doubtful Jimmy Carter would have entertained the idea of boycotting an Olympics. How quickly events spiralled out of control.

Many of the sources used in this article were taken from Sarantakes, Nicholas Evan (2010). Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War.

Luca Hodges-Ramon is a freelance writer and academic researcher due to begin his Masters at University College London in Political Sociology (Russia and Eastern Europe). Currently residing between Sussex and Siena, he developed his interest for the region while studying modules on the Russian Revolution and the Cuban Missile Crisis at university. Given his Italian heritage, he is also fascinated by the interrelation between Calcio, society and politics and you can read more of his work on his blog www.beyondthefieldofplay.com or follow him on twitter @LH_Ramon25.

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