The past year has felt like a return to the Cold War Era. We’ve had widespread reports of Russian meddling in American elections, a spy poisoned by Russians in Salisbury, and thinly veiled references to certain dangerous red buttons by major politicians. However, earlier this week, the World Cup kicked off in Moscow. And suddenly, all of that seemed to fade into the background.
This is far from the first time sports have been the impetus to unite us all, in spite of our differences. Nazi Germany was gearing up towards its peak in 1936, but the Berlin Olympics saw black athlete Jesse Owens wowing the local crowd. During Détente in the 1970s, so-called ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ saw China and the United States reopening talks, symbolised by a friendly game of table tennis; this arguably culminated in the 2008 Olympics, as China was welcomed fully onto the world stage. Indeed, an indication of how tense relations were between the USSR and USA in the 1980s was the fact that the two boycotted each other’s sporting events: the Moscow Olympics of 1984, and the Los Angeles Games of 1988. In short, playing sports with each other seems to always calm everyone down, no matter how high the stakes.
So will this World Cup be another indication of that? It is certainly possible. The news coming out of Russia rather calmed in the lead up to the first ball being kicked, perhaps on the understanding that it really would be an embarrassment if nobody showed up. Furthermore, now that everybody has arrived, the tournament provides an excellent excuse for informal summits. President Putin and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman shared a box for the opening game, and while Russia rather thrashed Saudi Arabia, it was all smiles in the booth. Undoubtedly, other high-ranking officials will arrive to watch their national teams perform; if they happen to have a conversation with the Russian president while doing so, what’s the harm?
Of course, the World Cup is hardly going to solve every issue. Russia’s actions on the world stage have been extremely disconcerting, and crowning another nation world champions of a game in Putin’s back garden is not going to cover all that up. Besides, the White House will not be sending a delegation to watch the national team anyway, thanks to Team USA’s embarrassing defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in the qualifiers. As such, the World Cup can hardly function as a meeting for all the big players, and nor should it – we’re here to watch a game, not witness a political summit. But for this month, the news coming out of Russia will for once be positive, and who knows? Maybe it will help the tensions cool off permanently, if only a little.