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15 March 2018

Is there a political benefit to hosting a World Cup?

The data is unclear.

By Stephen Bush

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.

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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.

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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.