Boris Johnson is right that Vladimir Putin will seek to use the World Cup this summer in the same way that Hitler did with the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Putin doesn’t care much for football, but the World Cup is a useful chance to confer legitimacy on his pseudo-democratic regime by basking in the glory of a tournament watched the world over. Hitler did the same when the Olympics came to Berlin, milking the Games for all they were worth and opening them himself amidst plenty of fanfare. The Führer’s aim was to present Germany as a great power. When the World Cup opens this summer in Moscow, Putin will be aiming to send a similar signal to the world: showcasing Russia as a powerful country and portraying himself as the Russians’ legitimately-elected president. Both messages are misrepresentations of reality. Far from putting Russia at the heart of world politics, Putin is, in fact, increasingly isolating his country. While the reports of ballot boxes being stuffed and the lack of any viable alternative to Putin in Russia’s recent presidential election make it clear that Putin’s legitimacy is also a sham.
The parallels between the Olympics of 1936 and this summer’s World Cup extend beyond the two leaders. Hitler’s Olympics were a ready-made propaganda opportunity for the Nazi regime. The Berlin Olympics were also the first Games to be broadcast live on television, and the Nazis duly capitalised on this by presenting the Germans as a resurgent people united by a common ethnicity which gave them enviable sporting prowess. Russian television viewers will be saturated this summer with images of their team and their president will portray himself as its manager-in-chief. How far Russia progresses doesn’t really matter: this is Russia versus the rest of the world.