It’s easy to figure out who won or lost on the soccer pitch; the real question is who wins or loses off it. As the World Cup moves from the group stage to the knockout round this weekend, a look at the big political winners and losers of the tournament so far.
Beyond Team Russia’s surprise success on the field (despite being the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, it managed to advance to the second round), the World Cup hosts are thus far delivering the kind of experience they promised when they were awarded the games in 2010. The tournament hasn’t had a major Russia-related controversy, and both domestic and foreign soccer fans (up to 1 million of whom are expected to visit by the July 15 final) seem to be enjoying the ride.
So is Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has used the World Cup to play host to a parade of world leaders, including Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and South Korean President Moon Jae In; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have also been invited to join. Putin also used the euphoria and media saturation of the World Cup to quietly pass an increase in Russia’s retirement age from 60 to 65. (The average Russian male life expectancy is 67 but only 57 percent of male Russians are even expected to make it to 65.)
Special mention also goes to Chechnya, a Russian region headed by strongman and Putin-devotee Ramzan Kadyrov. No player had greater buzz going into the tournament than Mohamed Salah, the Egyptian striker who plays professionally for Liverpool. Chechnya played host to the Egyptian national team in Grozny, a good opportunity for Kadyrov—a man who makes good use of other people’s fame. Salah is a devout Muslim acutely aware of his social profile, both in the U.K. and abroad, and one who makes it a point to avoid politics. Given a choice, he’d sleep through it all. Upon realizing Salah had decided to skip an Egyptian practice to sneak in some additional rest, Kadyrov personally drove to Salah’s hotel and dragged him onto the pitch; a bleary-eyed Salah waved for the press and fans.
If only that was the end of it. Kadyrov later caught Salah off-guard by awarding him honorary Chechen citizenship at a dinner ahead of Egypt’s final match, which left Salah contemplating retirement as the only sure way to avoid politicians. Luckily for Kadyrov, he already got his photo op.
It’s been a rough few months for Iran. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal had one immediate effect on the Iranian national team: a week before the World Cup began, Iran was informed that Nike would not be outfitting the players as a result of U.S. sanctions. For all Trump cares, let them wear Adidas.
Politically-speaking, Trump’s decision dealt a serious blow to Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani and has empowered the country’s hardliners, who continually warn that the U.S. can’t be trusted. The re-imposition of sanctions (with more to come) has already started hitting the country’s economy, and its currency has fallen by 50 percent in value compared to the dollar over the last 12 months. Protests have erupted across the country, though the authorities have swiftly clamped down. Iranians could have really used a good showing at the World Cup to let off some steam; they didn’t get it, narrowly missing the cut to advance.
It takes skill to be a political winner of a tournament you’re not part of, but tiny Kosovo—which only had its team officially recognized by FIFA in 2016—has pulled it off. The backstory: Kosovo is a disputed territory home to a largely ethnic-Albanian population. After years of horrific violence, it managed to declare independence from Serbia in 2008. To this day, many Serbs consider Kosovo a breakaway province, and Serbia refuses to recognize its independence.
Fast-forward to last week’s game between Switzerland and Serbia. Two of the biggest names on the Swiss side, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, are ethnic Albanians of Kosovar heritage; each scored a goal in Switzerland’s 2-1 victory, and both celebrated by putting their hands together in the form of a double-headed eagle, the traditional symbol of ethnic Albanian identity. Serbia wasn’t pleased; neither was FIFA, which fined the two players 10,000 Swiss francs ($10,100) each for making a political gesture on field.
Following that, the Serb coach quipped in after-match comments that a referee (who allegedly missed a call) should be sent to The Hague: “then they could put him on trial, like they did to us.” That cost him a FIFA-fine of 5,000 Swiss francs. Still, Kosovo’s president tried to calm tensions: “That symbol is not a symbol that killed people. It’s not a symbol of an attack on anyone. It’s a symbol of a bird. So may Switzerland fly to success.” Not bad diplomacy for a country that’s only officially been around for a decade.
Germany’s World Cup title defense didn’t last long: the top-ranked team going into the tournament crashed out in the first round. At least there’s historical precedent for the poor showing—four of the last five World Cup winners (France in 1998, Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, and Germany in 2014) all failed to survive the group stage of the follow-up tournament. Google searches of the term “schadenfreude” have spiked in recent days.
Plenty have pointed out the irony of an early German World Cup exit at a time when sparring over immigration policy between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party leaves German leadership in Europe very much in question.
Loser: The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
Saudi Arabia was the second-to-last ranked team in the tournament. Qatar didn’t even qualify, though it will host the 2022 World Cup. And yet these two Middle Eastern powers, neighbors, and current geopolitical rivals (the Saudis are spearheading a blockade against Qatar, which it accuses of supporting terrorism) continued to grab headlines during the tournament’s opening round. And not just because Saudi Arabia is preparing to build a moat along its 38-mile border with Qatar to turn it into an island—seriously.
Qatar, which has the exclusive broadcast rights to World Cup games throughout the Middle East and North Africa, accuses a channel it says is based in Saudi Arabia of rebroadcasting its feed of the matches. Qatar plastered a ticker across the bottom of its feeds informing viewers that they were watching pirated footage; the (allegedly) Saudi station then superimposed its own chyron on top of it. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Information denies that the station is even based in the Kingdom, and now FIFA has gotten involved. If the Middle East thought the current GCC crisis was bad, just wait until World Cup feeds start cutting out.