Andrew Osborn








Hosting the 2018 World Cup will strengthen Vladimir Putin even more, 2nd December 2010 17:10

By Andrew Osborn

For most countries, hosting the World Cup is about sport, money and prestige. For Russia, which has just won the right to hold the Fifa tournament in 2018, geopolitics is just as important. Just like the Soviet Union before it, Moscow sees such events as a chance to showcase the Kremlin’s growing clout on the world stage. As Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, prepares to fly to Zurich to bask in the limelight, he will allow himself a wry smile.

He very publicly staked his own reputation on Russia beating England to the prize and his gamble paid off. To be fair, Mr Putin did go the extra mile. He interrupted his holiday this summer to meet a visiting Fifa delegation and gave them his personal guarantee that his country would do whatever it took to deliver. Of course the fact that (even as prime minister) Mr Putin presides over a de facto one-party authoritarian state meant Fifa could rest safe in the knowledge that his promise was not an empty one.

When Mr Putin gives an order his officials usually jump to it. Russia’s bid was also nothing if not bold, envisioning holding a tournament in 16 stadiums in four different geographical clusters spread across the world’s largest country. He threw in a few alluring extras too, promising visa-free entry into Russia for ticket holders and free ground travel to help fans get around. Even though the Russian bid is fantastically ambitious (14 of the stadiums it is promising are nowhere near ready and in many cases only exist on paper), Mr Putin knew his bid had the edge.

Fifa loves legacy projects and enjoys opening up new markets, and Russia, it has to be said from a footballing perspective, is there to be discovered. Mr Putin can now sit back and reap the political dividends. With a presidential election looming in 2012, his close association with the successful bid will boost his credibility among Russia’s elite no end.

If he does want to return to the presidency, the World Cup will make it even easier for him to do so. It is also part of the Kremlin’s grand plan to rebrand Russia as a friendlier more successful place that has moved far beyond its Soviet past. Coming so soon after the embarrassing revelations of WikiLeaks, it is a victory Mr Putin is likely to savour even more. Russia is already set to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and recently negotiated a deal to bring Formula One car racing to Russia. The 2018 World Cup is therefore the icing on Mr Putin’s cake.