Russia and Croatia: soft power winners of the World Cup 2018
By Bruno Rukavina
  • Bruno Rukavina
    "Meeting Russia 2017" Alumnus;
    Master student of International relations, University of Zagreb
  • Within the framework of the concept of "soft power" Bruno Rukavina, Meeting Russia 2017 Alumnus and Master student of International relations at the University of Zagreb, reflects on what clear benefits Russia and Croatia have received after the completion of the World Cup 2018.
The World Cup 2018 has been one of the biggest and the most watchable sports event this year. Well over billion people watched it worldwide. Russia had an opportunity to be in the center of attention for one month as the host of the Football Championship, not as a dangerous threat to the West, but as an open, welcoming country for football fans all over the World. Not only Russia had a chance to be in the spotlight, but other countries in the Championship also have got an opportunity to win publics and fans through the game on the field. Such a country that has won the hearts of many fans in 2018 was Croatia, a state of just 4.1 million people, but with the team that has big dreams and lion courage. So let's figure out why Russia and Croatia are the winners of 2018 Championship in the sense of soft power.
Russia, the biggest country in the world, has welcomed and hosted 31 teams and their supporters. From 14th June until 15th July, Russia has turned into the capital of football. The borders were open for thousands of fans from all over the World.

Great sports cannot be separate from geopolitical, social, economic and touristic impact. In 2010 Russia has won the contest for hosting the World Cup as a result of recognition for its development after 1990's. In that time many new ideas and hopes were developing between Russia and the West in their relations. But many problems emerged after then such as Ukraine and Syria. In March 2018 after the Skripal case several states such as the United Kingdom, Island and Australia as well as some European politicians even called for boycott of the Championship. 60 members of the European Parliament sent an open letter to Russia saying that president Putin is not a good host while war in Ukraine and Syria continues. Boris Johnson, now ex minister of the UK Foreign Office, has compared Putin to Hitler and the World Cup to the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. For him both events are screen over imperialistic tendencies of both countries. But such comparison is deeply wrong, as Russia is not one party totalitarian regime, it is a sovereign democratic country (of course not liberal in the US and the EU interpretation of liberalism) and it is certainly not racist like Nazi Germany was. Racism was one of the main things Russia has decided to fight against in this World Cup.

When we talk about imperialism in the last 20 years Russia has "expanded" only on Crimea because of special circumstances and Russians who were in danger there after illegal coup d'état in Ukraine in February 2014. In addition, NATO has expanded to the Russian borders although it was clearly promised to Gorbachev that expansion would not happen if the USSR dissolved in 1991. Members of the European Parliament should look upon the EU states and their involvement in Syria and the Ukrainian crisis, before throwing accusations on Russia. Putin did not begin any of those crises, but he is trying to end them. Also he did not use the World Cup to propagate himself in any way. He was only at the opening and at the closing ceremony as he was supposed to. All those calls for boycott began fading as the Cup started and politics was slightly pushed to the margins.
Indeed, European countries did not talk much about "totalitarian" Russia during the Championship, because they were too occupied with the threat called Donald Trump. Some of states even started to change their view on Russia and look upon it as a possible alternative and potential partner against the USA. Certainly, this is still far away and it is more used to bargain and scare the Trump administration than to recover relations with Russia. If Trump continues to boost antagonism between the EU and the USA, the EU might try to find a reliable partner in Russia.

So as we can see, people living in the West were under great influence of anti-Russian speeches and Russophobian discourses from their politicians. One of the main goals in diplomacy and soft power is to create a better image of a state in foreign countries and among foreign population. So a picture of a country is made as a construct and thousands of visitors and football fans had a chance to see Russia at first hand and experience its culture and tradition. That is where many were shocked by the lies they heard about Russia back home. Now they are asking themselves what else politicians were lying about.

Many beautiful stories were created during this Cup and thousands of fans now can see Russia with different eyes. It is the country where they came, they had fun and where they cheered with all their hearts for their national teams. Russia has invested around 15.5 billion euros in stadiums and local infrastructure (mostly transportation) in 11 cities, which is 4 billion more than first planned. Great attention was given to the security and it was successful as there were no hooligans or any other incidents on the stadiums (like illegal fireworks). The only threat came from the Pussy Riot protestors which entered the field during the final match – an easy problem for security officers to deal with.

Russia has used the opportunity to show the world that it is a modern and well organized state able to perform global events and welcome around million visitors in one month. Besides that the Russian football team had a great success in the Championship. They have entered the quarter-finals where they narrowly lost against Croatia after a brave and difficult game. It was the clash of the Slavic Titans. Although Russian football team did not win the Championship, they got something priceless: hope. That can take the Russian team in the future matches anywhere, just like hope, bravery and sacrifice has taken Croatia into the finals of the Championship.
This leads us to Croatia - a small state on the East coast of the Adriatic Sea, more famous as touristic destination until the Championship. Croatia has won the hearts of the millions people and football fans around the World although it has lost in the finals. This has happened thanks to courage and passion for the game. Best example of that is football player Ivan Rakitić who was sick night before the match with England. Exhausted, tired and weak he went on the field and showed incredible spirit and courage, something every citizen needs to have for his country.

Where did those values and courage come from? Just like players, Croatia has gone through hell some years ago. Many Croatian football players grew up during the Croatian Homeland war for independence. For example, Luka Modrić, the best player of the Championship, was a refugee in his childhood and some of his family members were killed during the Croatian War of Independence and Yugoslav People's Army invasion in Croatia. Dejan Lovren and Mario Mandžikić were raised by the sounds of gunshots and grenades. Their homes and lives were completely destroyed during 1990's war, just like many other Croatian houses. This is why many people see themselves in football players, can express solidarity with them and why Croatia was mentally stronger while dreaming about winning the World Cup.

Game after game, Croatia has beaten some serious opponents like Argentina, Russia, Denmark or England. Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić said that in football or in life in general you should never give up! Croatia was the smallest country to enter finals of the football Championship since 1950. Slogan of the team was: 'Small country with big dreams'. That dream has come into reality, although it was not a golden dream but a silver one, which is the best result for Croatian since 1998 when Croatia achieved a bronze medal at the World Cup in France.

Football players were "ambassadors" of Croatia - showing to everybody how Croatians fight and die for their dreams. Only one incident among Croatian "football ambassadors" happened when player Domagoj Vida and Ognjen Vukojević said "Slava Ukraini" (Glory to Ukraine) after the match against Russia (it is explainable as they were players in Ukrainian football clubs). But this was an ungainly, hasty and uninvited statement that landed in the wrong time, especially in the wrong place. Many Croatians did not understand why that was said since Russians welcomed them with open arms and happily in their country. In Croatia this was condemned and seen as inappropriate because Croatians do not see any reasons to involve themselves in that political conflict since it does not have anything to do with Croatia. Evidence of that is when Croatian fans cheered in Moscow with a large flag that said: «Спасибо, Россия» («Thank you, Russia»). Vukojević became dismissed and Vida has got a warning and had to apologize to the Russians. For example, the Russian Duma accepted that apology and even Zhirinovsky said that Russians should support Croatia as the only Slavic team left on the Championship.
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In the international relations, being small is dangerous, but small is also beautiful. A small country is in danger because it can easily be conquered; this is why strategy of a small state is to go into big alliances like NATO. Also small countries strongly support the adherence to international law, since it is giving stability in international relations. But small is also beautiful. Small countries don't have that much obligations and responsibility as bigger players of international relations do. Croatia used this opportunity to promote itself as a brave country with spirit to fight.

Also Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitoravić has made Croatia even more recognizable in the World as she cheered while wearing the Croatian football jersey. Foreign media showed her like a person who was close to her countrymen and emotional, especially during the final ceremony, when she hugged all the players and showed feelings not usually demonstrated by politicians.

However in Croatia citizens are divided and some of them do not approve of her behavior. Some think it was not just by the protocol. So long as 2019 is an election year in Croatia, some see it as a part of her campaign before it is officially started and as using success of others for her own popularity. Nevertheless, it also had an impact of other countries getting more interested in Croatia. Never before has Croatia been searched via Google as it was during the Championship. Also just during only one-hour of the semi-finals match Croatia was tweeted more then 350 000 times, which is 80% more than usual. Foreign newspapers and media from the USA to Australia published huge number of articles about the Croatian miracle at the Championship. Pictures and videos of around 500 000 Croatians welcoming players without a single incident in Zagreb after the World Cup showed an image of security in Croatia, which is actually one of the safest country for tourists (around 20th place according to researches). Croatia did not win the Championship, but white and red squares have won hearts of millions worldwide.
Most importantly both Russia and Croatia made their fans proud and gave hope that football would be developing in both countries. And it is important to say that these events are also used for diplomacy on the high level. For example many politicians met Putin during the Championship. French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarović are among them.

Russian-Croatian relations are now getting more interesting since both countries have the same position about Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina (a clear vision that this country must remain unique, as a place where all three constituent peoples will equally decide about their destiny). Also there is Russian interest to increase exportation of gas in Croatia (even to build a pipeline), and Russian banks have become main stakeholders of the biggest concern in the Southeast Europe – Croatian Agrokor.

Another clear benefit for Croatia and Russia in this Championship is increased tourist attraction of them. Now football fans can enter Russia by the Fan ID and their old visa until the end of the year while Croatia used the opportunity to advertise itself as small country with lion's hearts and big dreams. Joseph Nye, creator of "soft power" terminology, noted that country has soft power when it has something good and valuable to show other countries. People start to admire, emulate and respect that country. In this sense both Russia and Croatia have great potential of soft power and have gained another chance in this Championship to promote that potential in the world through football.

The article reflects the personal opinion of the author.