As Europe considers whether or not to boycott Russia's 2018 FIFA World Cup, our Student Essay Winner David Williams explores the potential of the World Cup to catalyze a new era of sports and cultural exchange between Russia and the U.S. 

A newly-built stadium of Spartak soccer club is one of the twelve stadiums in eleven Russian cities selected to host the 2018 World Cup. Photo: AP

From the American perspective, there has not been much good news coming out of Russia for some time, with things reaching a low point this past summer with the conflict in Ukraine. Washington and the Kremlin seem to have disengaged. Political and cultural barriers separating these two worlds have raised concerns of a new subtler “Cold War” or, at least, a “cold period.” Journalists, media organizations and political think tanks are generating content to support the view of their respective governments.

However, there may be one small ray of hope on the landscape – the FIFA World Cup to be held in Russia in 2018. Some people might argue that it is trivial to be talking about soccer with such complex geopolitical events at play, however, soccer, and in a larger sense, cultural programming (including sports, music and the arts) has the possibility of bringing populations, business and eventually governments into more productive relationships.

My proposal is that organizations, businesses and individuals in the U.S and EU should begin to organize a large-scale cultural exchange with Russia leading up to the Soccer World Cup in 2018. This may seem counter-intuitive to many political thinkers. Some American politicians, particularly the ones who like to appear on the Sunday morning talk shows, suggest that the U.S. and EU should “punish” Russia for its behavior in Ukraine by moving the 2018 World Soccer Cup to a different host country.

David WilliamsMy approach is exactly the opposite. I think we should work hard to make the World Cup a grand success for Russia, to welcome them into an expanding period of cultural exchange. When Putin makes a positive gesture, as he did when he announced that foreign visitors to the tournament would not have to obtain a visa to enter the country, we need to respond in kind. Political dynamics with Russia are difficult and frozen right now, however, there are possible openings with cultural dynamics and we should make use of them for they may lead to political change at a later date.

When organizing cultural exchange with Russia, it is important to be sensitive to differences. Some cultural forms common in the West will not work in Russia. Soccer will work. Soccer works everywhere  it has become the world game. The 2018 Cup will be the largest television event in history. Interest in the game transcends cultural barriers.

In the words of the legendary English soccer manager Bill Shankly, "Some people believe football is a matter of life and death... I assure you it is much, much more important than that." The world’s game cannot be underestimated in terms of either its power or global reach. Throughout history, football has been a part of change. “The Football War,” centered on political conflicts in Honduras and El Salvador, coincided with a qualifying match of the 1970 World Cup. Stirring revolution in Algeria in the 1950s, seven Algerian players for the French team escaped the country and symbolically created a team in support of the revolution fighting the French. Following Iranian victories in the 1989 World Cup, at the same time as people took to the streets in celebration, many women removed their veils and forced their way into the stadium. The leaders of Turkey and Armenia met up to watch a World Cup qualifier (2008) and worked on mending relations between the two nations.

In the lead up to the 2018 World Cup, youth club teams, school teams, university teams and professional teams need to be heading to Russia for tournaments and vacation travel, and Russian youth need to be coming to Europe and the U.S. for games, training and travel.

Another cultural format that will work in exchange with Russia is music, especially classical music, since Russia has such a rich music heritage. It would be beneficial for American symphonies to go to Russia to play Tchaikovsky, and for Russian symphonies to come to America to play Copeland. Bard College, located in my hometown, recently sent their student conservatory orchestra to Hungary for a summer tour; next summer, it needs to be Russia.

Some people will undoubtedly express criticism of this proposal saying, “How are you going to pay for all this?” My answer is that both soccer and music have a strong business component. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire who purchased the New Jersey Nets basketball team before they moved to Brooklyn, is once again in the news, negotiating a multi-billion dollar deal with owners of West Coast sports teams. I can envision the growth of “Cultural Events Tourism” modeled somewhat after “Ecotourism.” Further, there will be individuals with resources who understand the possibility of these ideas. The first one that comes to mind is George Soros, who made his two sons play soccer in high school to help them prepare for life.

Another group of people will protest this proposal saying, “How can you plan an expansion of cultural exchange during a period when the U.S. and Europe have imposed financial sanctions against Russia?” My response is that, in this era, global cultural interests move in a separate channel than political dynamics. Sanctions have a role to play, and cultural events have a role to play. They don’t need to be synced. We need to be pragmatic and work where we see openings.

For this idea to move forward, one individual or company with global influence needs to step forward and begin to assemble a consortium of organizations, businesses and universities to plan the implementation of a program of cultural exchange, with interest in soccer leading the way. Mitt Romney could do this work, so could Bill Clinton, or ESPN or Google, to name just a few.

Cultural exchange is more important than ever, now that political relations between Russia and the United States are frozen. Further, both countries suffer from governmental stagnation. The upcoming 2018 Soccer World Cup offers the potential to change all that. This event is a “once in a generation” opportunity and could catalyze a great expansion of cultural exchange between the two countries and set the stage for political change down the road.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.