THE BLOG

Gentle Touch: The World Cup as a Soft Power Instrument

14/07/2014 14:45 BST | Updated 10/09/2014 10:59 BST

Those of you who've been watching any of the World Cup coverage over the last three weeks will no doubt have noticed that there has been one consistent winner - and it's not a football team at all. Behind Gary Lineker and the BBC studio is Sugarloaf Mountain. Behind Adrian Chiles and the ITV shot is the beautiful Copacabana, bathed in golden sunshine. In pre-game build-ups, roving reporters have visited and extolled the virtues of every tourist attraction, all in glorious high-definition. Despite some early problems in the form of social unrest and violent protests, Brazil couldn't have directed a better advert for itself if it had tried. It even seems to be showing itself as a gracious looser.

The World Cup is an extraordinary opportunity for a country to showcase itself, second perhaps only to the Olympics. And that showcasing is important for more than attracting tourists. The levers of influence and reputation on the world stage - traditionally the hard power of military force and economic might - are now more increasingly associated with the soft power a country can project. The strategic communication of cultural assets, political values and non-governmental relations (between, for example, football teams) can help a nation shape the preferences of others in diplomacy.

Brazil has used its opportunity to announce itself to the world as more than the country with great carnivals, caipirinhas and Christ the Redeemer, but also one with great infrastructure and transport, capable of running one of the world's biggest sporting and media events. Given that just a year ago, there were fears that Brazil would not be able to host the championship at all, President Dilma Rousseff has much to be proud of. Brazil has demonstrated itself as a credible power ready to take a prime place on the world stage. Admittedly the economic benefits of the World Cup may take a while to flow down to the favelas, and it will be difficult to prove causality - but in time they too will gain from Brazil's ascendancy.

Other countries have benefited from the soft-power bonanza of the Brazilian World Cup. Germany has no doubt improved its global reputation after the team's victory over Brazil: their clinical efficiency and dedication to the task at hand is extraordinary. Costa Rica - who came from nowhere in footballing terms to reach the quarter-finals - will also have profited from their moment in the spotlight. Off of the pitch, Belgian fans have exerted such effort in promoting the image of their country that one of them - Axelle Despiegelaere - was even being offered a modeling contract. The nation whose team takes home the trophy on Sunday will gain elevated worldwide recognition from foreign fans and media alike.

When you consider all this, it is easy to understand why nations are fighting tooth and nail (as well as under the table, if allegations are to be believed) to bring global sport to their home soil.

But notes of caution should be sounded. The media spotlight that so drastically aids the communication of a nation's cultural assets and improves its soft power works both ways. Although the Winter Olympics were successful for Russia's soft power projection (before the Ukraine crisis kicked off, at least), the spotlight on the Kremlin's poor gay rights record and the incredible $51bn price tag threatened to overshadow the values Russia was looking to promote.

It will be interesting to see how the next World Cup kicking off in Moscow in 2018 impacts global views of the Kremlin. For while the media spotlight has shone on an already-vibrant Brazil today, unless the four year hiatus is used to full benefit, it may reflect very differently on Russia tomorrow.