MOSCOW: The first thing someone de-boarding a train at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium metro station during the U-17 World Cup would have seen is a gigantic billboard promoting the tournament. On it though, instead of any of India’s budding young footballers, would have been Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s smiling face. Ditto for a visitor to the tournament’s final, who would have encountered West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee many times during a sojourn of
Kolkata. Presumably, that is how you use a tournament for political mileage.
In Moscow, though, you will have to search long and hard to find any iconography depicting Vladimir Putin. Not a statue, nor a billboard, not even a poster on a wall. Perhaps the closest visiting fans have come to finding him would be his face on some of the matryoshka dolls at souvenir shops. But then again, alongside him are Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Bob Marley, so that can hardly be counted as government propaganda.
It is a rather surprising strategy for someone who, according to the Western media, is hosting the tournament for all sorts of devious ends.
Of the many things on his supposed checklist, Putin would have been happily ticking off one even before the first ball was kicked in the tournament. For hundreds of thousands of people, Russia is no longer the cold and dreary land where James Bond goes to tackle pantomime villains. Unlike what happened to Rocky in the fourth instalment of the eponymous movies, there are no KGB agents following people in shady-looking cars.
If there is a Jennifer Lawrence from Red Sparrow waiting to honeytrap unsuspecting foreigners in dark corners of Moscow, she is clearly doing a horrible job. Of course, English fans may still find a batch of Russian hooligans waiting for them, but people belonging to dozens of other nationalities thronging the Red Square around midnight on Wednesday couldn’t have looked more carefree.
As for Putin’s other goal — forcing other nations to treat Russia as a normal actor and not as the pariah it is to Europe and the US — it is the President himself who is leading the charm offensive. On Wednesday at the FIFA Congress, Gianni Infantino abruptly called for a break in proceedings when it was whispered into his ear that Putin had unexpectedly decided to drop in. As the Swiss-Italian FIFA president moved to
the left of the stage in anticipation, Putin casually walked in from the other side, first prompting casual laughs, then a standing ovation.
Then, on Thursday, the cheers that greeted Putin when he stood up to declare the World Cup open was second only to the ones that ensued after Yuri Gazinsky’s opening goal for the hosts. Of course, none of this will cancel out his numerous sins. But if the first few days of the World Cup are any indication, Putin and Russia will walk out the biggest winners of the World Cup, come July 15.