With the FIFA World Cup well underway, all eyes are on Russia as it hosts the largest international sporting event of the year. The decision to host the tournament in Russia was made back in 2010, and since then FIFA has been mired in controversy due to bribery and corruption at the heart of the organisation. Three years after various FIFA officials were indicted and charged, concerns about the 2018 World Cup shifted away from worries of organisational corruption and were instead focused on fears of hooliganism, as well as racist and homophobic discrimination that fans might face in Russia. ‘England fans in danger of ‘extreme violence’ from Russian hooligans at World Cup’ and ‘Russia sees spike in racist and homophobic chants before World Cup’ ran the headlines in the British press. So far, these fears have not been realised. Indeed, England fans who have travelled to Russia have been keen to comment on how welcoming their Russian hosts have been.
Russian hospitality has become one of the main focuses of RT’s reporting on the World Cup. Whilst RT lacks the rights to show the games, it makes up for this by focusing on the fans and Russian culture. RT has employed Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho as a pundit, and audiences are invited to test themselves against his match predictions. Elsewhere on the channel, viewers can watch The Stan Collymore Show or The Peter Schmeichel Show, where the former Premier League stars interview players, explore Russian cities, and sample Russian culture. RT’s social media strategy is aimed at giving a #FansEyeView of the tournament based on user generated content. This involves a live YouTube feed made up of fan videos, alongside a mosaic of photographs taken from individual Instagram pages. Ultimately, this visual social media innovation – labelled the #footwall – draws upon user generated content to provide a seemingly more authentic, real-time insight into the everyday experiences of football fans than what might be found in other media coverage. Subsequently, in RT’s reporting of the World Cup, stories have focused on how US fans are supporting Russia and ‘building bridges’ with the host nation, how England fans have paid respects to Russian sacrifice in WWII and have ‘won friends’, alongside articles that depict fans from all nations celebrating together.
RT’s coverage of the World Cup therefore seems to be a lot less anti-western than you might expect. Whilst there is still the odd article or two that focuses on, and emphasises the popularity of Putin, RT has been critical of Russian MPs who have sought to introduce authoritarian laws that would introduce fines for anyone critical of the national football team. All of this suggests that a more detailed and nuanced account of RT’s coverage of global news is warranted, particularly in the context of the World Cup.
Cambridge professor David Runciman has recently suggested that ‘international football barely features’ in the politics of now, because the world is turning ‘away from soft power towards the colder comforts of hard power’. Contrary to this view, football does matter, and is intertwined with soft power at the World Cup. Research suggests that sport and sporting mega events have been a key aspect of the Russian state’s soft power strategy. Notably this was seen at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics during geopolitical crises in Crimea, and sport has consistently been used by the Kremlin to promote nationalism and national identity.
By analysing RT’s representation of Russia, Russian culture, identity, and nationhood during their coverage of the World Cup, our ongoing research at the Open University aims to provide further insight into the contemporary contours of Russian soft power. More importantly, through engaging with audiences of RT’s World Cup coverage, we aim to highlight how Russian soft power is interpreted and made sense of by those who view and engage with it.
In the run up to the World Cup, RT was highly critical of western concerns about the event being hosted in Russia. Despite this, so far it seems that with their coverage of the tournament RT is moving away from the vehement anti-western rhetoric that has characterised their past. Instead, RT is focusing on cooperation and the shared experiences of the Russian public and their global counterparts. RT is doing so by drawing attention to Russian hospitality, Russian culture, and by highlighting positive fan experiences. Over the course of the next few weeks our research will provide a detailed analysis of RT’s World Cup coverage on social media, alongside audience responses to it. For now, the excitement of the World Cup continues on, and off, the pitch.