Events / Impact / Nations / Teams

World Cup Watching

Forget Russia, France and England are likely to be the tournament's big soft power winners

Professor Simon Chadwick

Posted: July 9, 2018

For several years, political consultancy and public relations agency Portland Communications has compiled and published a global soft power ranking. Great Britain has always fared well, often topping the table.

The latest ranking, published in 2017, nevertheless conjured-up a shock as a Macron-inspired France took over from Britain at the summit of the ranking. Otherwise, the top-10 was:

1 France

2 Great Britain

3 United States

4 Germany

5 Canada

6 Japan

7 Switzerland

8 Austria

9 Sweden

10 Netherlands

Interestingly, China and Russia were placed 25th and 26th respectively in the table, whilst the likes of Nigeria were not even placed in the ranking.

Soft power is founded on the ability of a nation to shape the preferences of others, so that they admire its values, seek to emulate its example, and follow what it is doing. Alternatively stated, soft power entails getting others to want the outcomes that you want by co-opting rather than coercing them. Nye (2004, P. 6) notes that:

Soft power is not merely the same as influence…[it is] the ability to attract…soft power is attractive power.”

This transmits through the role a nation’s personality, culture, political values and institutions, and policies play in establishing its legitimacy and moral authority.

For some countries, for example Great Britain, football has become an important instrument of soft power. Indeed, in these countries football has become both a point of engagement with the world – a way of expressing values and culture – and also a means through which to influence, to affect decisions, and to sell.

It is therefore interesting that as we head towards Sunday’s World Cup Final in Moscow, the only two national teams left in the competition are two behemoths of soft power: France and England. This week’s upcoming Semi-Finals will therefore make for compelling viewing.

At this point, I apologise to Scottish, Welsh and Irish people for using England as short-hand for Great Britain. I do so simply for the purposes of brevity.

Prior to the World Cup starting, much was being made of Russia’s attempt to build and exert soft power influence via the tournament. In this regard, commentators believe the tournament has been a success for Moscow’s government and personally for Vladimir Putin.

Within a matter of weeks, general global perceptions of Russia have changed. In May, the country was being held-up as an evil empire: unstable, aggressive, corrupt, and the potential source of extreme violence. Now, there is universal praise for the country’s hosting of the tournament, its warmth and hospitality, and its overall safety.

This has not been the Russia that people expected to encounter, especially in the context of Crimea, Syria and Eastern Ukraine.

Soft Power 1, Hard Power 0 – this is how soft power works: gone are the dark days of 2014, though it remains to be seen whether or not Putin can sustain his new found love of attracting rather than coercing people.

In any case, it will be worth keeping an eye on Portland’s 2018 ranking; expect Russia to have moved-up several places.

Nevertheless, Russian soft power is now arguably a sideshow to the main event, as the world’s two soft power heavyweights prepare for the possibility of going head-to-head in one of the world’s most powerful soft power showcases.

Both England and France offer an inclusive notion of post-colonial, multicultural liberalism; for example France’s Paul Pogba is a Muslim born to parents from Guinea, whilst Kyle Walker is of mixed heritage – his father Jamaican, his mother English.

Beyond this, the soft power influence of France extends from the flair of players such as Antoine Griezmann to popular preconceptions of being French, such as style and flamboyance. With England, it is the balanced, sensible management of Gareth Southgate (whom Sven Goran Eriksson has referred to as being ‘like an English Sir’), and the triumph of stability over excess.

A win for either country will help cement their position in at the top of Portland’s soft power league table. It will also help one or both countries exert their nation brand propositions; that is: who they are, what they stand for, what they are like, and what they do.

As a footnote to the World Cup’s conclusion, it is nevertheless worth thinking about the other countries that have enhanced their soft power credentials. Perhaps Japan and their players cleaning the changing room after the team was knocked-out of the tournament? Maybe Nigeria and the international frenzy their well-designed shirts created? Perhaps Belgium for their open and progressive style of play? Or could it be China, a country that did not even qualify for the World Cup yet sent huge numbers of fans to Russia?

At least we now know, football is indeed more than a matter of life and death. It is increasingly also a matter of soft power.




About Professor Simon Chadwick

Simon is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University in Manchester (UK), where he is also a Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Founding Co-Director of the China Soccer Observatory and a Senior Fellow of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham (UK). He has worked in football across the world, for various organisations including companies, federations, and governments. He tweets via @Prof_Chadwick