Early stages of 2018 World Cup point to soft power win for Moscow

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

HAMBURG — Witnessing the early stages of the World Cup Football extravaganza offers an amazing sporting experience. Indeed, the enthusiasm is palpable and contagious as the early matches kicked off in a near carnival atmosphere.

For a full month, soccer games across Russia will lead to the coveted World Cup to be decided in Moscow on July 15th.

As the German business daily Handelsblatt headlined, Football: Money and Games. I would add politics too. Given that Russia is hosting these global games, there’s naturally a political context, as there certainly was with the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

RussiaThe FIFA World Cup, held every four years, is a bit like the Olympics of football or soccer if you prefer; it encourages nationalism, camaraderie, and generally good cheer in a series of matches between teams as geographically diverse as Germany/Mexico, Costa Rica/Serbia, South Korea/Sweden and Russia/Egypt.

The tournament started with 32 teams divided into eight groups.

For this World Cup such notable contenders did not even qualify for play; Italy, Netherlands, and the USA are not on the pitch this time round. Other qualifiers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iceland are not part of the long football tradition. And then there are the perennial heavyweights, Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay.

Russia, the host, has played surprisingly well early in the series.

Pundits aside, most of the early matches were not as predictable as planned. Germany’s initial match against Mexico, headlined as “High Noon in Moscow” ended in a humiliating loss to Mexico 1-0, jolting the reigning World Cup champion.

As the tournament reaches quarter finals, the levity and good nature of the earlier contests recedes into a more dour do or die atmosphere to edge your team and country into the next coveted round. Upsets abound amid the ballet of intricate footwork and strategy which characterize “the beautiful Game.”

National flags hang from apartment windows, illustrating the multinational nature of this prosperous seaport city. Flags draped on car hoods or sprouting from car windows. Postgame car honking and driving round with national colors. Even marzipan candy makers have football themes!

An early match between Portugal and Spain saw a whole neighborhood draped in Portuguese flags and wildly cheering fans even as the contest ended in a draw.

Germany who won the coveted World Cup in 1954, 1974, 1990 and 2014 faced a surprisingly early and lethal challenge to its crown. The German team, known as the Die Mannshaft has long set the standard for top notch play. Nonetheless Germany narrowly grasped a win over Sweden in a second match 2-1.

In the highest scoring match thus far, England pummeled Panama 6-1.

Teams already out of contention include Australia, as well as Costa Rica and Poland.

In many ways, the game of football reflects the ebb and flow of International politics; there are recognized powers around which much revolves. Yet nothing is really certain. There are many new upstart teams and players and unexpected outcomes which jolt and challenge conventional wisdom. Yet all is determined in ninety minutes of intense play.

And there’s the usual yammering; after losing to Switzerland in a tightly contested match, Serbia loudly accused FIFA of “a brutal robbery.”

But beyond the football field, Russia the host, pushes for a soft power victory on the political pitch with a carefully choreographed charm offensive aimed especially at the Europeans and South Americans.

Vladimir Putin’s political sixth sense has been energized by this international sporting venue held inside a dozen stadiums across European Russia. The tournament staging, thus far, has been a propaganda win for Russia.

As the World Cup approaches its decisive quarter final and semi final stages there maybe be room for an unexpected outcome.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]