Hounded by the Western media always sniffing a chance to attack and reeling with internal problems, the World Cup is a window for President Vladimir Putin and Russia to show they are capable of pulling off big shows. Vishnu Prasad finds out what is at stake for a nation seeking redemption through football...
At one of the many functions held in the countdown to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked who he thought would run out winners of the tournament. He did not need to draw deep into his footballing acumen to answer that question. “The organisers,” was his reply. Indeed if Russia were to pull off a World Cup that is remembered for its football and not for other things (a task easier said than done), then it would have notched up a major win in the relentless propaganda war that it has been locked in with the West since forever.
And after a period in which it was accused of sabotaging the US elections, shooting down an airline, unfairly invading Ukraine, poisoning people on foreign soil and engaging in the most sophisticated and widespread doping programme in sporting history, Russia really needs a win. No one really expects their national team to do that job — they come into the tournament as the worst-ranked team of the World Cup and are on their worst winless streak since the Soviet era. When Russian journalist Sasha Goryunov joined author David Goldblatt on the widely-followed ‘Days of Our Lives’ podcast, he pulled no punches in his withering assessment of his national team. “I think the big difference in 2014 was that there were still some expectations,” he said.
“The performances weren’t great, but there was sudden confidence, a certain competence about the Russian team going into the World Cup. Whereas this time there’s really none of that. So, I think expectations are rock bottom. To be honest, I think if Russia somehow gets out of the group there will be massive national celebrations because I think this is possibly the best thing they can aim for at the moment.” Nevertheless, the World Cup represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the country, both its people and its officials. For Putin & Co, it offers a possible respite from the relentless onslaught of Western media.
A lot could still go wrong at the World Cup — racism, hooliganism, discrimination against LGBTQ people have all been flagged as concerns. But a World Cup generally tends to be a party where the entire world descends on a country and leaves with a hangover and smile on their face. Russia will probably never have a better opportunity to distract the world, especially considering the country supplying the most fans are their most vocal critics USA. The 1978 edition in Argentina was held in circumstances that make the allegations against Russia look tame. While history has judged it poorly, accounts of the time talk of an event that was great fun. For the people in Russia though, the World Cup is not only a great economic opportunity but also a chance to erase the numerous misconceptions about them, to show the world that they are not all gruff, grumpy men who wrestle bears, swig bottles of vodka and shout racist chants whenever they are bored.
The former has been grasped with both hands if the country’s transformation in the run-up to the tournament is anything to go by. Many people in host cities have arranged to live elsewhere and listed their apartments online for vastly inflated rates. A basic room in Moscow on the opening day is going for as much as `10000 a night while flights between host cities on matchdays have gone up by as much as five times. A study commissioned by the Local Organising Committee estimated that almost $15 billion would flow into the economy due to the World Cup.
But it is the second of those factors that has struck an emotional chord with many Russians. In an interview with England’s ITV, Robert Ustian, a CSKA Moscow fan, spoke of how most of the Western world sees Russia in an unfair light. “My Britain is not Theresa May or Boris Johnson. Why is their Russia always about Vladimir Putin?” he asked. But then all this could spectacularly backfire. If Russia could pull off a great World Cup, Putin was quoted as saying last week, it may just be the country’s greatest achievement. While that statement smacks of hyperbole, it does offer a reflection on just how hard organising a flawless tournament will be for Russia.
All it takes are a few hooligans, an isolated wave of racist chants or a couple of Russian players failing a dope test. So far, Putin and his officials have gone overboard to ensure that the country presents its best face when fans start arriving — around $3 million was spent for the sole purpose of killing stray dogs. They now have to sit and pray that everything goes as planned over the next month.