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Is there a political benefit to hosting a World Cup?

The data is unclear.

Is hosting the World Cup a “propaganda victory” for Vladimir Putin? That’s the question being asked – or rather, begged – as the United Kingdom pulls ministers from the coming tournament in Russia and others campaign for England football team not to participate (a likely compromise is for the team to attend, but to play badly).

Of course, Putin’s Russia is a “managed democracy”: that is to say, it has the appearance of democratic contests but in fact does not. So the importance of a propaganda victory is relatively minor. I was curious, however, to see if there was any evidence that successfully hosting a major sporting tournament had any bearing on a party’s success, so I went back through the contests since the financial crisis.

Happily for our purposes – I am using only World Cups and European Championships, because I have more polling information and more democracies to choose from – the most recent two contests occurred in democracies and relatively close to an election.

France hosted the 2016 European Championship, reaching the final before losing to Portugal, a successful tournament by anyone’s standards. However, François Hollande’s approval rating declined throughout the contest and the ruling Socialists went down to epochal defeat the following year. The winners, Portugal, had had an election the year before. It is true to say that Antonio Costa and his ruling party’s ratings climbed throughout the tournament but not by any more than the general improvement in Costa and his party’s standings. So there doesn’t seem to be much of a winners’ boost there.

The most recent World Cup was hosted in Brazil, the summer before their presidential election. As a footballing superpower, Brazil go into every World Cup with high expectations; but the country failed to take advantage of the tournament being at home, losing 7-1 to eventual winners Germany. However, Brazillian voters don’t appear to have noticed: incumbent Dilma Rousseff’s polling numbers remained unchanged within the margin of error and she was re-elected in October.

Maddeningly, winners Germany had just had an election a year before, but Angela Merkel does appear to have had a small bounce in the polls in the immediate aftermath, but it is hard to be sure: her ruling CDU/CSU went from polling around 40 per cent to around 44 percent, so barely outside the margin of error.

What about the 2012 European Championships? They were co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland. Frustratingly, Poland had had elections a year prior, so our information is less useful, but Ukraine, like Brazil, had an election the following autumn, where the incumbent government was re-elected. Poland’s Civic Platform party went on to lose the 2015 contest, although they were already in trouble politically when the Euros began, polling consistently in the low-thirties, high-twenties, with the contest doing little to revive the government’s standing. Victory in the Euros actually coincided with a fall in the polls for Spain’s ruling People’s Party.

In 2010, South Africa hosted the World Cup, and Spain won (again). The ruling African National Congress got no boost in the polls from hosting the affair, whether because the football on display (with the exception of an exciting Germany side) was turgid in the extreme, or because of the behaviour of visiting Fifa officials, it is not clear. Interestingly, Spain saw a slight increase in the standing of the ruling People’s Party in 2010, suggesting that the benefit of sporting victory is a diminishing one.

Adding to that sense, in 2008, the ruling Spanish Socialists enjoyed a larger boost to their standing than any enjoyed by the PP in the wake of Spain’s first international tournament win at Euro 2008. But the hosting nations had no political boost and the governing parties in Austria both slumped to their worst-ever performances in the snap elections that followed the autumn after the contest.

So the recent evidence, such as it is, is clear: there is no political dividend for Vladimir Putin to be had in Russia hosting the World Cup. There may however be a small and fleeting one in winning it.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge