The EU and Russia: the beautiful game in 2018

2018 promises to be an important year for sport diplomacy in Europe. Eleven teams from the EU are taking part in the football world cup in Russia in June, and this is typically a time when heads of government, EU Ambassadors and all of the officials from the EU institutions take a demonstrable interest in the sport. National pride is at stake. All eyes are on the host country, and the image of  Russia also takes centre stage under global scrutiny.

So it came as a terrible blow to Russia’s national prestige that in the run up to the World Cup draw, on 5th December the Executive of the International Olympic Committee published a decision to withdraw medals awarded to Russian athletes in Sochi, and suspend Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics due to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February.

The Russian delegation at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Olympic officials ruled on Tuesday that Russia is not allowed to participate, as a country, in the 2018 Winter Games. Credit Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Vitaly Mutko the former Russian Minister of Sport, and President of the Russian Football Union was suspended for life, the Russian Olympic Committee and its head Alexander Zhukov were temporarily disqualified, and Dmitry Chernyshenko, who headed the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee, lost his seat in the coordinating committee for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

The blame for this catastrophic blow to Russian national sporting pride lies fairly and squarely at the feet of Vitaly Mutko, whose support team badly miscalculated the gravity of the situation, failed to take proper legal advice on the doping allegations in the reports from WADA, and totally underestimated the power of media coverage from the German TV Channel ARD, the New York Times and others.

This misreading of the situation might have been called “hybris” in a Greek Tragedy, but the catastrophic outcome has been that many innocent athletes in Russia are the victims of fallout from the sanctions, alongside the guilty ones directly targeted by the punishment who broke the rules on using banned substances to unfairly enhance performance.

A nation with such a proud heritage of international sports competition must now tackle the issue of a tarnished image in the run-up to next year’s football world cup competition, and it now has the opportunity to recover national pride. However, there will need to be a clean sweep of the politicians and officials involved in the administration of national sport to succeed in turning the situation around following Mutko’s calamitous disaster.

On 18 March 2018, elections for the next Russian President for a term of 6 years are due to be held. Vladimir Putin is running as an independent candidate for a record fourth term of six more years, and is widely expected to win.

But, in order to address the problems facing the country’s image in the international sporting arena, he will need a new Prime Minister with a strong administrative team capable of restoring improved relations with the EU and the international sporting community. The prize of a successful football world cup in Russia next June is potentially so great, that Russia cannot afford to miss out on the opportunity of such a public relations prize. This is after all the first time that the world cup has ever been staged in Russia, ever since football was first introduced into Russia by a British businessman staging the first football match on Russian soil in the 19th century. Over the years, the Russian national team has distinguished themselves as one of the world’s leading forces in world football, and although they start the 2018 World Cup with the boost of home turf advantage, they have the unwelcome misfortune that their sportsmanship is under a cloud, due to the winter Olympics scandal.

The Rostov Arena looks 😍 #WorldCup #Russia #Rostov

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Some international observers suggest that Dmitry Rogozin is the best candidate to improve Russia troubled relations with international sporting organisations and restore Russia’s outlook in international sport. He has been tipped as a leading contender for the post of Prime Minister to head the next government administration under Vladimir Putin; he is currently the serving Deputy Prime Minister responsible for defence and the space industry.

Other potential candidates for the Prime Minister post include Alexei Kudrin, a former Finance Minister, Denis Manturov, the Minister of Industry of the Russian Federation and Sergey Kiriyenko, a former Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin. It is too early to speculate on this as hte appointment is three months’ away.

But whoever is appointed to take on this task for Russia, a key priority will be restoring prestige in the international sporting arena, and improving relations with the European Union, for whose politicians the “beautiful game” has a special place in their hearts, as it is always an important opportunity for them to woo their electorate.

Whoever succeeds to rebuild the damaged bridges in Russia’s place in world sport will win massive popularity at home, help to restore national pride, and maybe even develop a platform for improving relations with his European counterparts.