When Emmanuel Macron dabbed with Paul Pogba during France’s World Cup party, it crystallized the image the country wants to project. Young, dynamic and tolerant, the sort of place where a former investment banker stands on equal footing with a young man from the banlieues – and copies his goal celebrations. Videos of Macron’s dab went viral around the world, illustrating the World Cup’s ability to provide the sort of ‘soft power’ marketeers can only dream of. Critics in other countries will argue that, far from being a triumph for equality, France’s success is further evidence of Europe’s unfair advantage over the rest of the planet. Yet with Qatar hosting in four years’ time, the next World Cup could finally herald a shift in football’s traditional hierarchy.
France’s conquest in Russia was certainly a huge political coup for Macron, the 40-year-old president who has promised to give his country a more prominent global role and raise national morale after a string of terrorist attacks. According to one ranking, France already enjoys more soft power – the ability to gain overseas influence through economic and cultural means rather than military ones – than any other country apart from Britain. As the chaos of Brexit corrodes Britain’s old imperial lustre and threatens its trading links, France now has an ideal chance to grab top spot from its old enemy, and the exploits of Les Bleus could even drag their economy out of a prolonged slump.
Sharing the glory
Yet France isn’t the only country which has received a power hit from the World Cup. Croatia, beaten in the final, has also received a boost which is perhaps even more significant given the size of the country and its turbulent history. Croatia won independence less than 30 years ago and its population is less than four million. Until recently it was best-known for its bloody struggle for freedom and the hedonistic pleasures available in Dubrovnik, the stag party haven at its southern tip. Yet web search queries for ‘Croatia’ reached their highest-ever level around the World Cup final and now Chinese visitors are taking an interest, raising hopes of a tourism boom. Croatia’s team, captained by former refugee Luka Modric, may not have claimed football’s ultimate prize, yet their sterling achievement will have ramifications far beyond the football pitch.
Even Russia, whose unfancied team performed admirably before losing to Croatia in the quarter-finals, is basking in the World Cup glow. After all the claims of election-meddling and spy-poisoning, Moscow is enjoying a bit of positive coverage, gleefully relaying accounts from visiting fans who said the experience had reshaped their view of the country. The stories of LGBT persecution and the rough-housing of dissidents haven’t gone away, yet for the moment they’ve been drowned out by commentators lauding one of the most entertaining tournaments in years. Donald Trump’s bizarre volte-faces last week provides a stark reminder of the turbulence surrounding Russia, but Putin, like the Russian team, has nonetheless emerged from the World Cup with reputation enhanced.
Will Qatar receive a similar boost next time round? Its rivals certainly hope not, given the ongoing allegations – denied by the government – that Doha won the 2022 World Cup on unfair grounds. Yet the tiny emirate is already making political capital from the tournament, despite the ongoing boycott by its neighbours. Qatar’s outdated labour laws have undergone sweeping reforms, winning cautious praise from NGOs like Human Rights Watch. In fact, those same projects have become diplomatic bargaining chips, used to reward old friends (such as Turkey and Oman) and entice new allies, such as France.
Even the English Football Association has changed its tune. Having vehemently opposed Fifa’s decision to take football’s global carnival to Qatar, it has since offered technical assistance. Now, having just received the mantle of World Cup host from Russia, the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is in London to meet with Theresa May and discuss not just the next World Cup but also the substantial trade and investment ties that bind the two countries together. Qatar has been one of the most enthusiastic foreign investors in Britain, even after Brexit. Last year, for example, the Qatari finance minister announced £5 billion in infrastructure investments on top of the £35-£40 billion Doha has already invested in the UK.
It goes without saying, however, that any and all benefits Qatar accrues from the World Cup will come off the pit. When the actual football kicks off in 2022, the hosts won’t stand a chance. Recent history suggests that no country outside Europe has a prayer; Europe has provided 31 of the 40 finalists since 1982. Cynics may suggest Europe’s success is inevitable given the economic power and colonial legacy which draws migrants from all over the world. They might also suggest the ‘big five’ European football powers – England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – are benefiting from a vicious circle, drawing top foreign players to their wealthy leagues and using the huge TV interest to fund world-class training facilities for their own talent.
Fifa is urgently trying to level the playing field. Football’s maligned governing body has expanded the World Cup to include 48 places, and Europe will only receive 16. It has yet to be decided whether the change will be adopted in time for 2022. Supporters from emerging nations will hope they have more of a chance in Qatar’s arid climate, which is likely to pose a formidable obstacle to European players even though the tournament is being held in winter (and in air-conditioned stadiums).
Whether or not Europe carries away the trophy again next time out, Qatar has arguably secured the key prize before a ball has even been kicked. Fifa’s decision to give the World Cup to the Gulf micro-state ensures a country beyond football’s wealthy heartland takes some of the soft power – and many will hope Qatar isn’t the only country which upsets the form book.
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