TASS News Agency reported on Friday July 6 that French President Emmanuel Macron plans to travel to Russia to attend the semifinal match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. France advanced to this stage in the tournament, so the nation’s leader wants to be there.
A June 8th piece on Deutsche Welle, a German-state funded news site, discussed the matter of the European nations and their response to the games being held this month in Russia. A number of leaders took politically calculated stances, such as Great Britain, Ukraine and Germany, and even the French leader said that he would only go if his nation’s team made it to the semifinals.
However, the truly incredible success of Russia’s presentation of the World Cup tournament is garnering more and more international attention. Even the American hawkish National Security Adviser, congratulated President Vladimir Putin in person on the success of this international tournament, with Mr. Putin’s reply offering to help the US manage the event when it comes to North America in 2026.
The World Cup is presenting several world leaders with a real quandary. Show up, and they may be accused of playing into President Vladimir Putin’s hands at a time of severe tension with Russia on several fronts.
German Green party politician Rebecca Harms is one of 59 Members of the European Parliament who have written an open letter urging all heads of state and government not to visit.
“They should stay away from the stadiums in Russia, because they will be instrumentalized by President Putin,” Harms tells DW. “I’m also convinced that we have a lot to talk about with Vladimir Putin. And we should do this right away, in the proper places, with serious diplomatic talks on Iran, on Syria, on Ukraine. But the football is more Putin’s instrument to get legitimization for all his wrongdoings, in the eyes of Russia’s people, by being joined by Western politicians.”
But decline to go, and politicians run other potential risks. They could be accused of seeking to politicize sport, or of leaving their national teams in the lurch. Some might even talk of a missed diplomatic opportunity, especially given developments at the Winter Olympics in South Korea earlier this year.
Even for someone like Angela Merkel, a World Cup provides a bigger, happier stage than is available to her on a typical day at the Chancellery. In the past, she has always jumped at the opportunity to travel with Germany’s national team. She went to Brazil in 2014 twice, once in the group stages and again for the final. As for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, it helped boost her profile — especially abroad — very early in her tenure.
Yet even in victory in 2014, the World Cup final was a public-relations mixed bag for Merkel. Yes, most people remember the photos of her and former President Joachim Gauck cheering the winning goal. But images of Merkel sat watching the game alongside Vladimir Putin and FIFA’s disgraced ex-president Sepp Blatter circulated the world just as feverishly, just a few months after the annexation of Crimea and at the height of the FIFA scandal.
The Sun reported back in March that six countries – Poland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Japan – were expected to boycott the World Cup in support of Britain’s claims that President Putin or his agencies ordered the poisoning of Yuliya and Sergey Skripal, a claim which was strongly denied by Russia.
However, the success of the English team and the experiences shared by visitors to Russia from so many nations – Mexico, the US, Australia, Brazil, Iran, Portugal, Argentina and Spain to name a few – has made this decision something of an embarrassment to the governments who decided to boycott. Their own people are bringing back entirely different stories of life in Russia and among the Russian people.
Since France – under President Macron’s leadership – was part of the triad of nations involved in the April 2018 missile strike in Syria, and since the US has adopted a visibly more conciliatory tone with Russia at the highest public levels, these recent events point at a certain isolating factor for Great Britain in regards to Russian relations with Western countries.