Who really won the FIFA World Cup?

The FIFA World Cup is over and the trophy is safely residing in France – but what kick do world leaders get out of event? Ben Robinson investigates.

The FIFA World Cup – known as the Holy Grail of sporting events for some, simply a children’s game on steroids for others. But whilst punters and sports addicts use the event as an arm-wrestle competition between countries, it’s not unusual for politicians do use the occasion to flaunt their reputation. Vladimir Putin certainly played the diplomat role, and France’s Emmanuel Macron’s energy and charisma definitely played well on the cameras. But is this showboating just a waste of time, or does the stage of a sporting event like the FIFA World Cup actually have an impact on approval ratings?

 Image credit: AMIN MOHAMMAD JAMALI/GETTY IMAGES

Image credit: AMIN MOHAMMAD JAMALI/GETTY IMAGES

Poster boy for the elite, Emmanuel Macron, has had quite the fall from grace. Since storming from the fringes to the presidency in May 2017, the rate of approval for his term has been below 50% more often than above. It goes without saying that the FIFA World Cup was almost certainly a chance for Macron to grab the bull by the horns, and showcase himself to his country as a youthful-yet-successful president. Perhaps he was hoping for the same treatment as Jacques Chirac, former French President, who saw his popularity leap from 45% in June to 59% in August after France’s victory in the 1998 World Cup. And whilst lightning never strikes twice, it did for Macron. In July 2018, his approval ratings climbed two-percentage points to 42%, likely a halo-effect from France’s victory of Croatia in the final.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have Vladimir Putin – dictator-in-chief of Russia. Securing the World Cup for Russia was as blatant a political move as there ever could be. Obviously not known for being a soccer-loving nation, Putin likely had two objectives for this event – to promote Russia to the world, and to promote himself. The former he certainly achieved – the World Cup gave the country a much needed makeover and tourism is expected to boom. The latter, however, he didn’t quite succeed with, which doesn’t make much sense. Putin won a “resounding” re-election in March 2018, made the US President look like a complete fool, and in-between, hosted arguably one of the most successful World Cups ever. Merely days before the first kick-off, Putin was enjoying a very comfortable 62% approval rating, but the day after the final saw that number shrink to 49% - and that’s according to the Public Opinion Foundation, the polling resource used by the Kremlin itself.

So why does a literal victory work for some, where a symbolic victory doesn’t for others? The key is this – correlation does not equal causation. The poll that showed Macron’s approval rating increase slightly after the World Cup was merely one polling agency. Another agency saw Macron’s approval drop to a new low of 39% in the same month – this is likely due to a massive beating Macron has been taking in the press after his now-former bodyguard was filmed beating a member of the public in what has been dubbed the “French Watergate”. Similarly, Putin’s drop in approval ratings – during a time when they should have been skyrocketing – is largely due to a proposed change in pensions. The Russian government wants to increase the age at which citizens become eligible for state pensions, a policy that only 9% of the Russian public support. In a sense, both Macron and Putin have failed spectacularly, because what they were hoping for cannot be achieved with a simple soccer competition. A victory for France was never going to guarantee more supporters for Macron, and being seen on the world stage in a positive light isn’t as simple as Putin thought. Numbers don’t lie but they are very dependent, and it seems like these leaders will have to find something else to depend on.

 Image credit: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY\TASS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Image credit: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY\TASS VIA GETTY IMAGES

Ben Robinson is a first-year economics student who wants to explain things to people for a living, by making boring stuff sound interesting. He is currently obsessed with obscure psychedelic music from the 1960’s and he enjoys long walks on the beach, sunsets, and long walks on the beach at sunset.