Vladimir V. Putin is actually not a soccer fan — ice hockey has always been his passion — although eight years ago, from the hours after FIFA declared Russia would certainly host the 2018 World Cup, he told a story designed to illustrate that will he grasped just what the event, and also also also the sport, could do for his country, and also also also for the entire world.
Mr. Putin had landed in Zurich only a few hours earlier, after Russia had been awarded the tournament. As the country’s prime minister at the time, he wished to bask from the glow of an unexpected victory, not associate himself with even the possibility of defeat.
He was rushed immediately to a celebratory news conference. The tone, for the most part, was exultant, almost crowing, as Mr. Putin explained how Russia’s oligarchs and also also also corporations would certainly be leaned on to finance the billion-dollar jamboree. The Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, from the audience, beamed at the idea.
As he told the story, though, Mr. Putin grew almost wistful, romantic. He was born in Leningrad just after World War II, he said. As a child, he had been told how the city had suffered during the conflict: The siege of what is actually today St. Petersburg lasted almost 900 days. There had been “no electricity, no running water, no heat in a Russian winter.” German shells landed every day.
although he spoke of how — at the height of the siege — “football matches were held, even at that will tragic time.” They had “helped people stand tall and also also also survive.”
“Football brings a spark into the lives of people, young and also also also old,” he said.
that will was what Mr. Putin dreamed the entire world Cup could do for Russia, went the metaphor: to illuminate a nation, to inspire a people, to help a vibrant, rapidly modernizing nation stand tall. He wanted the entire world Cup to showcase that will Russia was not what This specific used to be, although had become something brand new, something different. He wanted to prove that will “we are an open and also also also transparent country to the entire world.”
The hundreds of thousands of fans who would certainly descend on Russia in eight years’ time, he said, would certainly find facilities of “the highest standard,” delivered “on time and also also also to perfection.” They would certainly discover a country that will was nothing like the one they remembered by school or had heard about on the news.
“A lot of stereotypes by previous times, by the Cold War era, fly all over Europe, and also also also they frighten people,” Mr. Putin said then. “The more contact we have, the more these stereotypes will be destroyed.” Russia — his Russia — was different today. the entire world Cup would certainly prove This specific.
Eight years later, that will seems a distant prospect. Relations between the West and also also also Russia are as strained as they have been since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since Mr. Putin reassumed the Russian presidency in 2012, Russia has invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, been implicated from the shooting down of a commercial airliner and also also also stymied all attempts to find a resolution to the war in Syria.
This specific has been accused of overseeing a vast state-sponsored doping program that will affected results at the Sochi Olympics and also also also of interfering not only from the United States presidential election, although also from the vote on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Britain’s intelligence services believe the Russian state was behind the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former double agent, and also also also his daughter, Yulia, in Britain earlier This specific year.
At home, too, few believe Mr. Putin’s Russia is actually the open or transparent nation he boasted about in 2010. Human Rights Watch has reported the country is actually more repressive today than at any point since the Cold War. Domestic opposition is actually harassed and also also also crushed; elections are a simulacrum of democracy.
There are those who suggested for years that will the entire world Cup should be taken away by Russia: a country that will won This specific in what many believe was a tainted bidding process — Russia refused to cooperate with the investigation into the votes for the 2018 and also also also 2022 World Cups, claiming the bid team’s computers had all been unfortunately and also also also accidentally destroyed — and also also also still struggles with racism in its stadiums and also also also homophobia on its streets.
and also also also yet — extraordinary though This specific is actually to say This specific, given all that will has happened between the vote to award the hosting rights and also also also the tournament’s opening game in a few days’ time — there was a grain of truth in Mr. Putin’s logic in 2010. that will story about war-torn Leningrad was more than just empty rhetoric.
This specific is actually not necessarily admirable, or praiseworthy, or right, although once the tournament starts, once the largest sporting event from the entire world is actually in full flight, a transformation will take place. In Brazil four years ago, huge strikes were timed to coincide with the entire world Cup to highlight social injustice and also also also endemic corruption from the country. the entire world noted This specific, and also also also then tuned in to the matches, anyway. the entire world Cup is actually a circus, and also also also what is actually a circus if not illusion, and also also also distraction, and also also also sleight of hand?
This specific will not necessarily be the quality of the soccer: The game in its highest form is actually today played from the Champions League, not on the international stage. If you want slick, dizzying style, watch Barcelona or Manchester City. If you want breathless, breakneck chaos, go for Liverpool or Borussia Dortmund. If you want star power and also also also soap opera, nothing touches Real Madrid and also also also Paris St.-Germain.
For tension, though, for meaning, still nothing quite beats the entire world Cup. Will This specific be the year that will Lionel Messi finally delivers the trophy to Argentina? Can Brazil, driven on by Neymar, avenge the national humiliation of 2014? Will Germany become the first country in more than half a century to retain the entire world Cup, or is actually This specific the moment for Spain or France to reclaim the crown?
For romance, too: Egypt is actually back, 28 years since This specific last appeared, inspired by the beaming Mohamed Salah; Panama and also also also Peru declared national holidays simply for qualifying; Iceland, with its thunderclapping fans and also also also its dentist-turned-manager, will be the smallest nation ever to take part from the jamboree.
the entire world will watch, as This specific always does. This specific will find heroes to love and also also also villains to loathe. This specific will rise in joy and also also also sink in despair. the entire world Cup is actually a thing all of itself; to many, to most, from the heat of This specific all, what matters is actually the field, and also also also the goals — not where they are.
Most important, Russia will watch, too, and also also also that will is actually what always mattered to Mr. Putin: not how the entire world sees Russia, although how Russia sees itself.
Its team — the lowest-ranked host in history — seems likely to offer little: Expectations in Russia run no higher than simply not exiting at the earliest available opportunity. Even Mr. Putin has not tried to associate himself with the national side: As the timing of his visit to Zurich in 2010 proved, he is actually not prepared to countenance even the slightest stain of defeat.
What matters more is actually how Russia responds off the field: Can This specific prove to itself that will This specific is actually the nation Mr. Putin preaches that will This specific is actually? Can This specific deliver a spectacle — even from the face of reinforced sanctions, introduced after the Skripal poisonings — worthy of the superpower of its president’s vision?
that will is actually what Mr. Putin wanted by This specific tournament, why he supported the bid from the first place: a chance to stage a vision of his Russia to Russia. that will comes using a considerable risk, however, one that will will provide the most fascinating — and also also also possibly most important — subplot to the tournament.
They still talk, in Russia, about the children of the 1980 Olympics: the generation that will had the chance to welcome athletes and also also also fans by around the globe at the height of the Cold War and also also also that will was inspired not by how different they were, although how alike. Eager to put on a show, the Soviet authorities stocked shops with Pepsi and also also also Marlboro cigarettes for visitors to the Games. 5 years later, the era of glasnost and also also also perestroika began.
Nearly four decades on, what impact could the influx of thousands of fans, by Colombia and also also also Tunisia and also also also Iceland and also also also all points in between, have on a country that will its president has worked so hard to imbue from the myth of its own difference?
This specific may not be a World Cup that will alterations how the entire world sees Russia, not given the political context in which This specific takes place. although This specific could be a World Cup that will alterations how Russia sees not only itself, although the entire world as a whole.
As Mr. Putin himself said, though, soccer can bring a spark into the lives of people, young and also also also old. This specific is actually a World Cup designed to show his strength. that will does not mean he can control its power.