The timing at Monday's press conference in Helsinki was too perfect. Right after Russian president Vladimir Putin answered a question on cooperative efforts in Syria and whether the ball is "in the Russian court," he stopped the discussion to present something to President Donald Trump — a soccer ball. The "gift" from Putin turned a metaphor about political positioning into a literal stance on sports, as the world leaders shifted the attention to the World Cup.
"Speaking about having the ball in our court in Syria, President Trump has just mentioned that we've successfully concluded the World Football Cup. Speaking of the football, actually..." Putin said, trailing off, stepping away from the podium to pick up a 2018 World Cup soccer ball, according to ABC News. "Mr. President, I will give this ball to you, and now the ball is in your court."
After he passed the ball to Trump, who accepted it with a smile, Putin pointed out that the United States, along with Mexico and Canada, will host the tournament in 2026.
"We hope we do as good a job. That's very nice. That will go to my son Barron. In fact, Melania, here you go," Trump said, as he tossed the ball to his wife in the front row amid laughter from the crowd.
The first lady sat next to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the front of the room, and when Trump lobbed the ball to her, it did not quite make it into her hands. The ball bounced, according to New York Post, and Pompeo, who was sitting next to Melania Trump, had fast enough reflexes to catch it.
The first lady (clad, apparently, in a $3,600 Gucci coat, according to a CNN reporter) kept the ball on her lap throughout the news conference, and after it concluded, she passed it along to a Secret Service agent, the New York Post reported. The agent then reportedly put that ball through a security scanner, according to an NBC News reporter.
The soccer ball from Putin immediately prompted skeptical social media reactions from both lawmakers and the public. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham cited security concerns and said that if he were given the ball, he would "never allow it in the White House."
Prior to the appearance of the soccer ball, the subject of whose court the ball was in came from a reporter who had asked a question on Syria, according to ABC News. The reporter had referenced a Sunday night tweet from Pompeo, who had written, "A better relationship with the Russian government would benefit all, but the ball is in Russia’s court." It seems the language of the moment came from the tweet.
Putin's gift to Trump is not a historical first; just the day before Putin's meeting with Trump in Finland, Putin gave a soccer ball to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, though FIFA President Gianni Infantino was present during that gifting in the Kremlin in Moscow, ABC News reported. Qatar is the next nation to host the World Cup.
This is not the first time that leaders from Russia and the United States have used gifts to warm chilly international relations. According to The New York Times, while Hillary Clinton, who was the secretary of state at the time, and Sergey V. Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, were at a lunch in 2009, Clinton gave him a red button with the Russian word “peregruzka.” The Americans were looking to strengthen their diplomatic ties after Russia had invaded Georgia and had presented the button as a symbolic sort of fresh start. But the gift didn't quite stick the landing — while the Americans thought the button said “reset," it turned out the word actually meant “overcharged.”
Now, after years of hostile acts by Russia against various nations, including the United States, it was the Russians this time who brought the gift for the diplomatic public relations moment, putting the ball literally into American hands.