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Weaponizing the World Cup

France emerged victorious from the 2018 FIFA World Cup, an impressive feat having fielded the second-youngest squad in the tournament, defeating Croatia 4-2 in the finals. While the subsequent analysis and commentary will focus on France’s triumph and the remarkable nature of the tournament, malicious actors will bask in glory in the shadows. Capitalizing on the international community’s veneration for the tournament, (1) Russian President Vladimir Putin, (2) Chechen dictator Akhmad Kadyrov, and (3) human traffickers weaponized the World Cup to broaden their operations and embolden themselves.

(1) Russian President Vladimir Putin:

Having secured the right to host the largest international sporting event in 2010, the World Cup was a resounding success for Vladimir Putin long before its commencement. Upon initial inspection, the success of the Russian campaign to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup was seemingly a remarkable feat, having been deemed the riskiest bid to host the tournament by FIFA during the selection process in 2010, due to funding concerns and Russia’s lack of critical football infrastructure and a prosperous football culture. Yet, upon further review, it is abundantly clear why Russia’s bid was selected: the Russian government employed a systematic campaign of corruption, deception, and fraud. To satisfy their objectives, the Kremlin elicited the assistance of prominent Russian government officials and oligarchs, who exchanged favorable trade deals and expensive gifts with other nations’ voters for their support. Further, Putin covertly commissioned his political ally Roman Abramovich, the owner of the world-renowned Chelsea Football Club, to use his influence in the international football community to pressure then-FIFA President Sepp Blatter. While subsequent FIFA probes concluded that the Russian bid was won fairly, Blatter, who was suspended from FIFA on corruption charges at the time, divulged that the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were predetermined.

The extensive efforts perpetrated by Putin and the Kremlin to securing the 2018 World Cup paid significant dividends for them following the conclusion of a successful tournament. The striking performance of the Russian national team, who managed to reach the quarterfinals despite being the lowest-ranked squad in the tournament, coupled with the successful governance of tournament logistics and operations, has caused nationalism to flourish. This renewed sense of nationalism has emboldened Putin both domestically and internationally. Domestically, it has enabled Putin to distract the citizenry from the domestic economy’s sub-par performance and widespread corruption and repression, soften domestic opposition to the recently reformed pension system, and further solidify his legacy in Russia as a powerful ruler and sportsman.

Internationally, Putin was afforded the ability to strengthen his and Russia’s international standing in two regards. First, by fostering a surprisingly hospitable and welcoming environment for international football fans during the tournament, Putin helped to weaken prominently held stereotypes of Russia as a nation of blunt, malicious, and primitive anti-Westerners. As a result, the Kremlin has predicted international tourism to increase by approximately fifteen percent in the months following the conclusion of the World Cup. Second, Putin used the tournament as a means to cultivate better diplomatic relations with those in the international community, personally inviting the leaders of nations in the World Cup to watch the tournament with him. During the Finals, Putin watched the match alongside Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, French President Emmanuel Macron, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino and helped present the championship trophy to the French side. As a means of extending the sports diplomacy to the United States, at the Helsinki Summit, Vladimir Putin presented American President Donald Trump with a football from the World Cup, stating, “now the ball is in your court.” While Trump reciprocated by giving Putin a game-worn jersey of Russian hockey great Alexander Ovechkin and a hockey puck, it is evident that Putin’s statement reflects an emboldened stance.

(2) Chechen dictator Akhmad Kadyrov:

Similarly, Chechen dictator Akhmad Kadyrov exploited the distinguished nature of the FIFA World Cup to back and amass support for his domestic and international objectives. Following the model employed by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov weaponized his status as a host of the tournament to promote his brand as a leader in the Muslim world capable of befriending international celebrities. When the Egyptian national team arrived at their hotel in Chechnya, the team’s temporary base during the group stage of the tournament, Kadyrov, with the assistance of Chechen officials, coerced Liverpool striker Mohammad Salah into taking a picture with the dictator. Exploiting the popularity of Salah, who is widely regarded as the most famous athlete in the Muslim world, Kadyrov sought to disseminate the image of himself as an influential Muslim leader. By constructing this image, Kadyrov emphasized his desire to strengthen economic and political ties between Chechnya and the Muslim world, as Chechnya is predominantly Muslim. Yet, his success in accomplishing this objective proved to be initially limited, due to the fact that Salah became enraged and felt disgraced after the incident, briefly considering officially retiring from the Egyptian national team, as Kadyrov is a brutal and repressive dictator infamous for his human rights abuses and homophobic rhetoric.

(3) Human traffickers:

The final classification of malicious actors who were emboldened from the nature of the World Cup are human traffickers. While trafficking individuals into Russia is normally costly and challenging, due to lax visa policies enacted for the tournament (by which you could enter the nation with merely a ticket to a game and a fan pass) doing so became notably less problematic. During major international sporting events, human trafficking tends to rise as such events generate a significant short-term demand for unskilled labor at low wages. Yet, this phenomenon was amplified since, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), forty percent of trafficked women originate from Eastern European countries. Thanks to intelligence from the Nigerian government, Russia’s anti-trafficking agency was able to secure ten Nigerian children who were trafficked to Russia to be sold into sex work. Alarmingly, Russia was afforded the ability to take preventative measures to counter trafficking from occurring during the World Cup, such as keeping stricter visa policies in place, yet in their inaction they were complicit.

Simply stated, the World Cup emboldened Russian dictators and human traffickers to broaden their actions and objectives in the shadow of an otherwise memorable and successful tournament that concluded in a French victory.

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